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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Food in review: charting the evolution of the UAE's food scene 

In line with a country that takes pride in its melting-pot status, the UAE also benefited from new outlets serving up an increasingly broad spectrum of cuisines

Sizzling Sisig at Little Manila restaurant. Satish Kumar / The National
Sizzling Sisig at Little Manila restaurant. Satish Kumar / The National

When it comes to the UAE’s culinary landscape, 2017 could well be called the year of the Michelin-starred chef. While no such title technically exists, we saw hordes of high-profile chefs, who head up Michelin Guide restaurants, descending upon Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Some of them already own restaurants here, such as Gordon Ramsay, whose Bread Street Kitchen turned two last month; others launched new ventures or opened branches of their stellar eateries: case in point, Demoiselle and Galvin Dubai by the Galvin brothers, and Amalfi Coast’s Quattro Passi by Antonio Mellino. A few chefs collaborated with hotels to craft menus for a limited period of time, such as Sergio Herman’s two-night, eight-course menu for At.Mosphere in November; and Paco rez’s Spanish tapas menu at the Ritz-Carlton DIFC that’s available at Center Cut restaurant until January 22.

Gordon Ramsay at Bread Street Kitchen. Victor Besa for The National
Gordon Ramsay at Bread Street Kitchen. Victor Besa for The National

In line with a country that takes pride in its melting-pot status, the UAE also benefited from new outlets serving up an increasingly broad spectrum of cuisines, proving that the region’s foodies relish, if not outright demand, variety. Abu Dhabi, in particular, welcomed a number of firsts: from Latin American chains Coya and Toro Toro, and popular ­Filipino joint Little Manila to 99 Sushi, Eat Greek, Loca for Mexican, French fare from Le Petit Maison and even the British chain Greggs, much-loved items from which are available from Souq Planet.

Dubai Opera welcomed its first and only in-house eatery by ­Australia-based chef Sean Connolly, who says he specialises in “clean, simple and easy” dishes of beef and seafood, ­especially oysters. The Downtown area also became home to Kohantei, which introduced the Kaiseki culinary concept. Here, a traditional multi-course Japanese meal is served to barefoot diners in individual trays by ­kimono-clad staff. In DIFC, Ravioli & Co was established to offer foodies an Italian home vibe, with the pasta being made fresh each day by an in-house sfoglina.

Lamb tagine at Galvin Dubai. Courtesy Galvin Dubai
Lamb tagine at Galvin Dubai. Courtesy Galvin Dubai

Elsewhere in the emirate, Lima Dubai marked the first international foray of the award-winning United Kingdom-based Peruvian restaurant; while Mumbai’s Mughlai food favourite Khyber also opened its second-ever branch here. The Galvin brothers weren’t the only chefs to launch multiple venues in the same year: Joe Isidori from New York City’s popular burger joint Black Tap gave us two outlets within 10 months, while celebrity chef David Myers brought three of his signature concepts – Bleu Blanc, Basta and Poppy.

Stand-alone restaurants aside, the UAE witnessed a number of food hubs sprouting along beaches and highways alike. La Mer in Jumeirah 1 and the Abu Dhabi-bound Last Exit MadX offer open-air cafes and food trucks respectively, while a number of new eateries have sprouted at Club Vista Mare and along the Dubai Canal. Dishes by the dozen were the highlight of various food festivals and restaurant weeks, such as the Dubai Food Festival and Eat The World DXB in February; Taste of Dubai in March; Restaurant Week at Yas Viceroy and The Galleria in April; Jumeirah Restaurant Week in October; Taste of Abu Dhabi last month; and Abu Dhabi Food Festival this month.

A food truck at Last Exit MadX. Courtesy Meraas
A food truck at Last Exit MadX. Courtesy Meraas

While food fests are best enjoyed during the cooler months, summer brought with it its own set of treats. Ramadan saw a host of new iftars at venues such as Palazzo Versace and Ruya in Dubai, and Jannah Burj Al Sarab and Bab Al Qasr in Abu Dhabi, while Eid Al Adha and Eid Al Fitr brunches and buffets redefined indulgence. In addition to the restaurants that opened over the summer – Katsuya by Starck, Talise Fuel, Sushina and Abu Dhabi’s second Cho Gao branch – many eateries put together seasonal and discounted menus for July, August and September.

Café Bateel launched its much-awaited Sundae menu; Miss Lily’s introduced a Blazin’ Brunch; and Marina Social added 18 dishes inspired by seasonal produce. The summer also marked Truckers DXB’s first indoor event at Dubai World Trade Centre, while in May, the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority launched a programme to promote Emirati cuisine in hotels with all-day dining restaurants.

Indian food took top honours as the most searched cuisine in 2017, ­according to research put together by Zomato, while ­chicken shawarma was the most ordered dish of the year, followed by chicken biryani, ­Margherita pizza, hummus and butter chicken. Zomato also partnered with Abu Dhabi Food Festival, offering users of its app access to menus from some of the capital’s premier restaurants for a reduced price, plus special rates on its two latest products: Zomato Gold, a dine-out club membership that offers complimentary drinks at 300 spots across the UAE; and Zomato Treats, a subscription that rewards users with free dessert each time they order online.

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Home delivery dominates a huge chunk of the UAE’s food scene, with Zomato recording an 18 per cent month-on-month increase in orders this year. In a bid to expand delivery options, Deliveroo launched six purpose-built kitchens in Dubai, based on search data that identified areas where the culinary tastes of residents and employees were not being satisfied.

The lounge area at Lima Dubai. Courtesy Lima Dubai
The lounge area at Lima Dubai. Courtesy Lima Dubai

As a result, foodies in JLT, Marina, JBR, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City, Knowledge Village, Barsha Heights, Emirates Hills, The Greens, The Meadows, Jumeirah Islands and JVT can now order food from all the way across town, from such varied eateries as Burger and Lobster, Clinton St Baking Company, Joga, Pineapple Express and Pinza. In the capital, Uber Eats expanded its services to include Reem Island, Al Maryah Island, Al Khubeirah and Al Etihad, as well as reducing its delivery fees from Dh10 to Dh5.

As the cooler months set in, a number of outdoor terraces and lounges opened their doors, most notably Filini Garden on Yas Island and Pure Sky lounge at Hilton JBR. Food also plays a big part in Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities, with meal deals to suit every mood and budget. If you haven’t made plans yet, tonight is as good a time as any to start experiencing the UAE’s increasingly diverse and ever-expanding culinary landscape.