x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Samad Al Iraqi: Authentic Iraqi food

Authentic Iraqi food in traditional surroundings - a welcome tonic for those needing a break from Dubai's high-end dining scene.

The interior of the Samad Al Iraqi restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
The interior of the Samad Al Iraqi restaurant on Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National

It was a visiting friend who first put me on to Samad Al Iraqi, after stumbling upon the restaurant by chance when wandering along Jumeirah Beach Road. She raved about the pillowy, warm flatbread presented at the start of the meal, talked incessantly about the whole fish cooked on the maskouf grill (an ancient Iraqi cooking method) and then revealed that the reasonable prices made a meal there something of a steal.

At Samad Al Iraqi, the aim is clear: to serve authentic Iraqi food in traditional surroundings. For anyone who wants a break from Dubai's high-end dining scene - where so often hip-looking spots ultimately lack soul - it is a welcome tonic.

This is a simple, unpretentious place, with genial if rather sporadic service. Importantly, eating here is an interesting experience, particularly if, like me, you're not really familiar with Iraqi food. The menu is long and each part is prefaced with a few lines of explanation; for example, it informs you that ryouk (breakfast) is regarded as an important main meal, hence the inclusion of substantial dishes such as gelfry ("chunks of lamb cooked the Iraqi way with a selection of vegetables and tomato sauce") and qawerma ("rich meat that comes with fried eggs").

There's a section dedicated to hot and cold appetisers, numerous different salads, a list of meat-heavy dishes (many of them variations on hunks of lamb simmered in a tomato-based sauce), a selection of grilled items and one dedicated to fish (which includes the maskouf fish that my friend had so enjoyed).

While I was still browsing through the menu and almost without my noticing, the table was silently furnished with salad and sour pickles, a bowl of pleasantly plain lentil soup and a large round of floppy, hot-out-the-oven flatbread. You will not go hungry here.

Eating alone, I began with a portion of chicken livers cooked in pomegranate molasses. They were simply presented - piled on to the plate, doused with gravy and sprinkled with chopped parsley - and really good. The sauce had a lovely sweet-sour tang to it, which balanced the bitter, savoury flavour of the liver well. The meat was tender and creamy, rather than dry and tough as it often can be, and when my main course arrived before I'd finished the dish, I was disappointed.

I was also quite overwhelmed. The portions there are huge: my shawarma tashrib could have fed a family of four and that was before a separate platter of rice was added to the mix. I hadn't known quite what to expect when I'd ordered the dish, but soon surmised that this is essentially a very flavoursome, rustic-looking layered stew. Squares of soft, chewy tanour bread fought valiantly to soak up the juices from the thick, fragrant tomato-based sauce, which featured vegetables braised to a melting softness and shards of lamb. Cinnamon added a heady sweetness and salty, dried lemon halves cut through the fattiness of the meat.

It was the combination of the size of the dish and its intense richness that ultimately defeated me and meant that I managed to eat only half of what was in front of me. Don't think that this means I didn't enjoy it, though.

There is an understated, family style generosity about this restaurant, which makes it feel a little bit special and means that it is well worth a visit. Just make sure you take your appetite with you. 

A meal for one at Samad Al Iraqi, Beach Plaza Centre, Dubai costs Dh85, not including service. For reservations call 04 342 7887. Reviews meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito

eshardlow@thenational.ae