When the third person in a week asked me if I'd been to Bu Qtair and then looked thoroughly disappointed when I said I hadn't, it was clearly time to visit.
The restaurant is renowned for being hard to find, so feeling intrepid, we set off early one Wednesday evening with a few hastily scribbled directions in hand. Which, it turns out, were all we needed. If you decide to do the same, simply drive down Jumeirah Beach Road with the sea to your right. When you reach the Chalet cafeteria turn right, veer right again and then trundle down the back road (with the ocean to your left) for a minute or two. Pull up when you spot a few dhows that have seen better days, a cluster of people and a rundown building.
Due to the sheer number of cars lining the side of the road, we were forced to park a short walk away from where we thought Bu Qtair was. Yet as soon as we stepped outside, even before the small cabin came into view, it was clear we were in the right place. The smell (roasted Indian spices mingled with salty sea air) told us all we needed to know.
A few seconds later, we found ourselves standing in the middle of a dimly lit, sandy yard filled with people and plastic tables groaning with seafood. At this point, we felt a little unsure of what to do next. Should we wait to be seated? Seek out a menu? Abandon the mission altogether?
Thankfully, a waiter sensed our confusion and took pity, steering us into the shack/kitchen/waiting area while promising to secure us a table. Once inside, it is very, very basic. You can see into the tiny busy kitchen, hear the hiss of the stove as fish after fish is slung on to the hotplate and watch the chefs working away.
It turns out there is no menu at Bu Qtair. When you reach the front of the queue you're simply confronted with a tray bearing the catch of the day: vast piles of fish (sheri and hammour when we visited) and a mound of prawns. We opted for a medium sized sheri and more prawns than I thought we'd be able to manage (it says something that we polished off every single one).
True to his word, our waiter had snagged us a table outside, so we settled back to take in the surroundings.The view is nothing much. If the restaurant was located a little further to the right the Burj might just come into peripheral view, but as it is, there are just a wall and a few old boats. A small stereo provides music, which the (well-fed) neighbourhood cats make a decent attempt at drowning out. And all the while, people of different ages and nationalities come and go. Tables are cleared and then filled again moments later and a steady stream of customers arrive to pick up parcels to take away.
Half an hour or so after we ordered my friend's name was called out and a platter bearing our fish and prawns arrived, along with some paratha, a bowl of tomatoey curry sauce and a few wedges of lemon. Cutlery wasn't offered, so we decided that now wasn't the time to be precious and tucked in with gusto. As you may have already gathered, there's nothing even vaguely fine dining about eating at Bu Qtair. Don't come here expecting wonderfully attentive service or china plates - visit for the seafood.
The sheri tasted spanking fresh. The fish had been tossed in a spice rub before being cooked over a high heat, which gave it a lovely charred crust. The skin was crisp and salty, the flesh white and meaty and if it wasn't exactly what I'd call moist, it wasn't too far away. We ate the fish plain at first (with just a squeeze of lemon) before dipping pieces into the slightly sweet, slightly spicy tomato gravy, the remains of which we later mopped up with the chewy paratha.
The fried prawns were also really good.They weren't the juiciest I've ever tasted, but the flavour of the aromatic spice paste that they'd been marinated in made up for that. It was faintly aniseedy, with a little bit of cumin in there somewhere and enough chilli to catch us off guard occasionally and cause drinks to be hastily gulped, eyes to water and noses to stream. Not exactly glamorous, but thankfully, things like that don't matter at Bu Qtair.
With the last morsel of fish eaten, I remember wiping my greasy, curry stained fingers on thoughtfully provided tissues and musing that this was one of the most enjoyable (and fun) dining experiences I'd had in quite a while.
I'm not going to get carried away; it's highly unlikely that a meal here will be the best of your life. It's not a place to get dressed up for or visit when amuse bouches and petit fours are the order of the day. But, go with the right attitude, take the place for what it is (a shack near the beach serving really good seafood) and I don't think you'll leave disappointed.
Too many people already know about this place for me to call it a hidden gem, so perhaps gem will have to be suffice. Go now, while the weather still permits eating outside.
A meal for two at Bu Qtair in Umm Suqeim, Dubai costs Dh110 not including service. No bookings, directions as above. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.