Was it a good sign that Sloane's in the Grosvenor House Hotel shared its name with London's upmarket Chelsea district or an ominous portent that we might find ourselves swamped with Sloane Rangers?
We weren't sure which to expect, but there was no hint of the boorish Hooray Henry type at its iftar, despite its odd location on the mezzanine level of the Dubai hotel, hovering over the lobby. Instead, the venue was positively buzzing with families with young children and a good mix of nationalities. But with tables arranged around a huge central rectangular cooking station, it never felt too crowded.
By contrast, the hotel's only other iftar buffet in Ottomans, while enjoying a more picturesque setting with Arabesque furnishings, was completely devoid of atmosphere, with only one family dining from a single line of buffet dishes. It didn't take us long to opt for Sloane's. The choice was almost too overwhelming, from an extensive salad bar with a dizzying array of dressings, a sushi counter, vast platters of lamb ouzi with rice, mussels in a spicy coconut sauce and cheese selections dotted around the restaurant - and at the heart of the venue, that cooking station, with each bank lined with dozens of silver-domed dishes of hot food.
We decided to work our way slowly round to the centre and started with the salad and sushi counter. Along with the more predictable offerings such as babaghanoush, fattoush, tabouleh and labneh - each perfectly adequate in its own right - there were some far more innovative salads. Caulifower tahina had chunks of the vegetable smothered in a light but creamy sauce, which melted in the mouth. A prawn cocktail salad was reinvented from its dated 1970s version with the traditional thousand-island dressing replaced by a delicate, dill-infused mayonnaise.
The batata harra, or spicy potatoes, were crisp on the outside with a lemony tang but thankfully, were not drowned in oil, as so often happens in restaurants. My only complaint was that they were slightly too salty. Crabs' legs were monstrous beasts of tender steamed meat in their shells, delicious with a spritz of fresh lemon on top. The crab and salmon sushi was, if not particularly creative, solidly satisfactory.
Passing by the central counter on the way back to our table, we spied an enormous array of raw seafood and meat and made our selection from the squidgy grey prawns and fleshy white slivers of fish. Within a few minutes they were delivered to our table, still steaming hot from the grill, the skin of our red mullet and salmon criss-crossed from the chargrill and the prawns cooked butterfly-style. We squeezed lemon over the lot but in all honesty, the dish did not need it; it was delicious in its simplicity and freshness.
We washed it down with fabulously refreshing karkadi (hibiscus) juice, a nice change from the traditional jallab (date and rosewater drink), and went back to the grill, this time for a rack of lamb, which was juicy, moist and perfectly prepared. They went well with roast potatoes, akin to Yorkshire pudding with their crisp exteriors and fluffy insides. One of our favourite dishes, the enormous mussels in their spicy coconut soup, was reminiscent of a Goan curry: sweet with a fiery kick.
A spicy prawn stir-fry bore up well under inspection. Again, it was slightly sweet with a bite that wasn't overpowering, a good match for the vegetable fried rice. Despite its name, the latter lacked any greasiness, the grains of rice separating easily. It was indicative of what we found throughout the buffet: there was a comforting lack of oil and grease in most of the dishes, which deluded us into thinking we were being healthy as we loaded our plates for a fourth time.
The flavours stayed light with a clever use of herbs and spices, although myself and my dining companion found there was too much of a random selection in the international buffet, with dishes not always complementing each other. And there were a couple of dud notes: the halloumi baked in tomato sauce had turned to rubber and the Hyderabadi fish curry was overly chewy with an unappetising sauce. We put both exceptions down to the unforgiving glare of the hot lamps over them.
On to the dessert counter and it, too, seemed to stretch on endlessly. Unfortunately, most of the offerings erred on the stodgy side. The umm ali was soggy and overcooked, an apple strudel unexciting and a tiramisu cake, which was essentially a cream-filled mound with a thin layer of sponge, bore little relation to its refined Italian cousin. We fared better with kataifi, a divine, pancake-shaped pastry layered with custard and crisped vermicelli. The semolina was equally sublime, thick, rich and creamy and studded with plump raisins and pistachios. An indulgent chocolate brownie pie warmed our cockles, although by now we had to put any thoughts of saving our waistlines to one side.
But we couldn't resist seconds of the blueberry pies. Initially we thought they were mince pies with their dusting of icing but light, buttery pastry gave way to fresh blueberries swimming in a delicate fruity sauce. They summed up Sloane's for us: one of the more inventive iftars we have come across, the restaurant tries harder than most and generally gets it spot on. Sloane's, Grosvenor House Hotel, Dubai, 03 399 8888. The iftar buffet costs Dh185 per person and includes soft drinks. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National.