Almaz by Momo Harvey Nichols Mall of the Emirates Dubai, Tel: 04 409 7788. Iftar buffet is Dh165 per person, including juice.
Just after sunset, a mass of shuffled feet buffed the zellige floor tile mosaics at Almaz by Momo. They padded a determined course underneath bulbous glowing lanterns, and through an atmospheric dining room to a brightly lit chamber decked with ornamental curios and swooping chandeliers. Running around the room in a broken horseshoe were tables laden with Arabic food, a bounty of dishes from the Levant and Morocco. Only minutes ago, the sound of prayers had echoed through the restaurant, yet now the murmur of people breaking the fast melded with the sound of glasses being filled with fruit juice and the clink of cutlery. As people carried food back to their tables, they sat down to the sweeping music and powerful voice of Umm Kulthum, which burst from the speakers like friction sparks in the night.
We may have been in a contemporary Moroccan restaurant for iftar, but the sound of the Egyptian singing legend's distinctive outpouring of emotion signalled that the evening's gathering transcended mere national boundaries. It was a time for Muslims from all over the Arab world and beyond to meet, congregate, reflect and dissect their day at the beginning of the holiest of months. Tonight, Almaz by Momo seemed a million miles away from its glitzy, celebrity-infested London counterpart, Momo, which has become a byword for North African chic. Instead we saw families, couples, friends and colleagues celebrating iftar in an environment that was perfect for amplifying the unique atmosphere of Ramadan.
Though some remained at their tables to break the fast the traditional way, with dates and juice, most flocked to the buffet in the adjoining room. We duly followed, and began with a bowl of thick harira soup. It was crammed with chickpeas and finely chopped vegetables, sprinkled with lemon juice and soaked up with chunky Moroccan bread. Soon it was time to sift through the salads, where we discovered Lebanese tabbouleh and fattoush alongside smoky moutabel and creamy hummus. I also grabbed a couple of fried kibbe, which were delicious, with moist granules of minced lamb and pine nuts in a crisp shell. And we'd hardly got started.
I had to try the berber tagine, which was lined up next to two more overflowing clay pots of slowly simmered delights. Among the boulders of soft potato, carrot, onion, green beans and peas were hunks of unfathomably tender lamb. There was more melting meat to be savoured with the shoulder of lamb. And on the side, I spooned heaps of crumbly couscous from beneath flapping white cabbage leaves and a further haul of steamed vegetables. And yet, there was still the tender and flavour-packed koosa mahshi (stuffed courgettes with rice, minced lamb, garlic, cinnamon and mint) to enjoy.
A landslide of tumbling baklava, pastries and Arabic sweets led us to the spongy berber pancakes with syrup, which were devoured alongside fresh slices of pineapple and melon. Around the gently lit dining room, the sorties to the buffet were becoming less frequent. And as the sated diners settled down for the evening, Umm Kulthum's cries continued to wash over us in dramatic, heartfelt waves.