What tastes will tickle the tongues of UAE gourmets in 2012? Feargus O'Sullivan looks into his crystal bowl to predict the trends in fine dining over the months ahead.
Set the table for sardines, and more gourmet trends for 2012
As time passes, so do trends and tastes. In a country as multicultural as the UAE - with residents following widely divergent lifestyles - it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which food fads will come and go. With so many dining options flaunting their assorted fare in the Emirates, who's to say what the next epicurean flavour of the month will be?
Well, us. We've looked ahead to predict the palate pleasers we're confident are on their way in for UAE foodies.
Gastronomy-wise, it's going to be an exciting - but not game-changing - year. A fishy revival, a Spanish invasion and restaurant apps that give new meaning to peer pressure - here's our fearless forecast on six trends we'll be fixated on in 2012.
Sardines and mackerel
They make your heart healthier and may even mitigate the effects of Alzheimer's - we've known for some time about the many health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon and tuna. With world stocks of those popular choices falling alarmingly, it's time for fish lovers to turn elsewhere. This year, diners in the world's major cities will be rediscovering the pleasures of less pressured but equally delicious alternatives.
Luckily, the Emirates are in a good position to spearhead this trend, as less over-exploited oily fish such as the rainbow sardine and the Indian mackerel are relatively plentiful in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. So next time you go out for sushi, turn down that travel-weary serving of salmon sashimi that's come halfway across the world and go instead for delicious, intensely flavoured sardine and mackerel - checking first, of course, to make sure they were landed locally.
Long gone are the days when Spanish food outside Spain meant cheap tapas bowls of previously frozen prawns, bad paella and the odd bit of soggy tortilla. In recent years, Spain has been challenging its northern neighbour, France, as the leader of Europe's gastro scene, producing food that marries impeccable local ingredients to a healthy dose of avant garde experiment. From February, Abu Dhabi residents will have a chance to experience this wilder side of the new Spanish cuisine at the Park Rotana hotel's new Amador Restaurant and Cellar.
The German-Spanish chef Juan Amador - a disciple of the Catalan chef-scientist Ferran Adrià - has already scored three Michelin stars for the modern Spanish food at his Mannheim restaurant Amador, and his Abu Dhabi establishment is tipped to be the opening of the year. Expect such unusual dishes as red mullet with spinach, passion fruit and coffee, or lobster with green apple, goat's cheese, apple-core oil and duck liver, to be out of this world.
Forget the pages of the Michelin Guide - the real powers that get restaurants filled nowadays are to be found on your smartphone. Clued-up diners no longer rely on the opinions of expert critics to help them decide what they want to eat; they increasingly look to peer reviews from other ordinary diners and to social-networking websites.
Want to find out if a restaurant is good in 2012? Then hashtag its name and search on Twitter. Curious as to where your friends are eating tonight? Try hunting them down on the location-based social-networking site Foursquare, or via Facebook updates. Looking for a romantic restaurant in another city for your anniversary? Do a mobile search on the international amateur review site Yelp. While the hippest restaurants used to be desperate to make headlines, this year it will be when they trend on Twitter that they know they've really hit the big time.
Packed with spicy, smoky, briny flavours, Korean food can make the exquisite delicacy of that country's Japanese neighbour's cooking look timid by comparison - perhaps that's why the Japanese themselves are such big fans. According to the US restaurant consultants Baum and Whiteman, 2012 will be the year when this most unusual of Asian cuisines finally goes mainstream, with Korean meals a quick and increasingly common feature of many cities' lunch counters.
Dishes to look out for are stone pot bibimbap, where rice, vegetables, meat and chilli paste are cooked at the last minute in a sizzling stone basin, and bulgogi, flame-grilled meat shreds tenderised in a sesame and garlic marinade.
With only two Korean restaurants, Abu Dhabi won't exactly be at the crest of the trend - but you can experience how subtle and different the top end of Korean cuisine can be at Gourmet Abu Dhabi in February, when the Belgian/Korean chef Sang-hoon Degeimbre demonstrates the Korean-influenced haute cuisine that has earned his Brussels restaurant L'Air du Temps two Michelin stars. Until then, there's always Korean Night at the Holiday Inn Abu Dhabi to try out on Thursdays.
OK, so the food of the British Isles doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation internationally. Bland and stodgy - or so the cliché goes - it's often seen as the culinary equivalent of the dreary British weather. In truth, Britain's dining scene puts many of its European neighbours to shame.
Beyond the international free-for-all of London's restaurants, the gastropub movement has also seen a revival in interesting old recipes and fine but forgotten local ingredients, filling the country's abandoned pubs with a new lease of life. This new wave of better British food is now lapping at the shores of the Emirates. After this summer's opening of the Ivy, a Dubai outpost for the London celebrity favourite, January sees the launch of the Alfred Dunhill brand's flagship restaurant Alfie's at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai.
If the menus at Dunhill's two existing restaurants are anything to go by, expect understated luxury comfort food with excellent ingredients, mainly wolfed down by British expatriates pining for grey skies.
Restaurant critics have been very tough on fusion food in recent years. With restaurant fashion swinging towards "authentic" and "local" cuisines (though they're often neither), fusion dishes have often been damned as fake, watered-down corruptions of the real thing.
Thankfully, 2012's restaurant scene is set to be less uptight about authenticity, with unexpected culinary mash-ups becoming increasingly common. The British television chef Jamie Oliver is arguably leading the trend, having just opened a "British pizza" concept restaurant in London, but Baum and Whiteman predict more out-there combinations, such as hummus combined with wasabi peas.
In some ways, the fusion tendency has never really gone away in the UAE, but for a fresh shot in the arm for the trend, look to two soon-to-open Abu Dhabi branches (joining three already in Dubai) of New Zealand's Burger Fuel, a gourmet fast-food joint whose Japanese Wagyu beef burgers topped with aioli break away from the classic American template.