Feature The new Souq Qaryat Al Beri is home to the hippest hot spots on Abu Dhabi's culinary map, a modern recreation of the typical Arabic marketplace.
Woks and hot places
With a flap, a clap and a theatrical roll, a colourful Persian rug is unfurled on a carpet trader's shop floor. A mother guides her young children through the winding paved walkways and sandstone arches of the bazaar; while, a group of friends pass by shops and boutiques, chattering about where they should eat. Will it be the Meat Co, or maybe the Noodle House? It could be a scene straight from the Souq Madinat in Dubai - except this time it's in Abu Dhabi.
Souq Qaryat Al Beri is the first development of its kind in the capital: a modern recreation of the typical Arabic marketplace, with open shopfronts and customary handicrafts next to all the trappings of today's consumer society. For months leading up to its recent opening, it was one of the most eagerly anticipated retail projects in the city. Unlike many of the malls in town, the souq would reflect the ambience and heritage of a traditional Middle Eastern trading place. But while the waterside complex near the Shangri-La hotel has brought a new dimension to shopping in Abu Dhabi, it may also have changed the local restaurant scene.
That's certainly the view of Raed Dabbous, the creator of Sho Cho. A boyish and buoyant American of Lebanese origin, Dabbous owned a sushi joint in Washington DC before moving to Dubai. Sho Cho is a slick, stylish concept that attracts a loyal crowd of discerning diners. They are reeled in by the sushi, salads, tempura and teriyaki on offer, but are just as likely to linger on the plush white-leather sofas and soak up the chilled beats and cool vibes after a meal.
Almost a decade old, this Japanese restaurant and lounge is one of the grand old landmarks on Dubai's dining and nightlife landscape. But along with his business partner, Hiba Kosta, Dabbous sensed something was unravelling in Abu Dhabi that was far more exciting than any Persian rug. And now the second Sho Cho is up and running at Souq Qaryat Al Beri. "We've taken our time in expanding because we want to do things right," says Dabbous. "We've been approached to go all over the Middle East, but we thought Abu Dhabi was ready for a concept like Sho Cho. I like Abu Dhabi, but it's just been very difficult to get a location because the city is full to the brim. We've had to wait for the right time, and this is it."
Clearly, Dabbous has always had an eye for an opportunity. "I started Sho Cho about nine years ago," he says. "When I was first in Dubai, many of the restaurants had no soul, they were like hotel receptions, so I wanted to start something new. I think we were the first people who had a lounge in Dubai - we were going for a change in atmosphere. "I think Abu Dhabi is the right place to be now and that we're going to help change the whole scene of Abu Dhabi, because all the restaurants in the souq have such high standards."
These other restaurants include brands that have also been tried and tested in Dubai, such as The Meat Co steakhouse and the South-east Asian restaurant The Noodle House. Like Sho Cho, they are accessible and attract a broad clientele. Carolyn Mitchell is the softly spoken executive manager of Emirates Leisure Retail, which looks after The Noodle House and Left Bank brands - both of which have a presence at Souq Qaryat. The Noodle House prides itself on its ability to serve Thai, Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean food quickly, but its relaxed atmosphere, gentle lighting, dark wooden finishes and bustling open kitchens set it apart from the average fast-food restaurant.
Like Raed Dabbous and the team at Sho Cho, Mitchell was quick to spot the souq's potential. "It's important for everyone to dip their toe in the water. You have to measure the uptake. We already have a Noodle House in Al Wahda Mall, and it's a vibrant, bustling restaurant. You go with the feedback from your customers, and if there's an appetite for a second restaurant, then you go for it." There's little doubt that the arrival of the souq and its new restaurants will bring greater variety and choice to the people of Abu Dhabi. But do the similarities between this project and the souqs elsewhere in the UAE (Souk Madinat and Souq al Bahar, for example) make for a homogenised experience that could eventually become stale and predictable?
Carolyn Mitchell believes the Abu Dhabi restaurant scene needs a sense of familiarity to kick-start its renaissance. "I think if you listen to the market, and you're clever about what you're bringing, then it's important to have an even mix. People like to recognise a brand, but they also like to explore new things. It's encouraging to see existing brands developing, to have the foundation that people are used to, but also to encourage new brands to develop and start up."
So, presumably the restaurants in Abu Dhabi will be the same as their Dubai sister establishments? "We're all under the same umbrella," asserts Jody Lynn, The Meat Co's general manager. He once worked for The Meat Co's chief competitor in South Africa, but more recently has overseen his current employer's outlet at Souq al Bahar. "All the Meat Co restaurants use the same supplies," he explains frankly, "the same ingredients and the same work ethic - it's exactly the same. There should be no difference in the experience."
In other words, wherever you find a Meat Co restaurant, you should also find friendly and knowledgeable waiters, warm and welcoming decor, juicy steaks and traditional South African fare, not to mention a buzzing and convivial atmosphere. Why change a winning formula? The Meat Co's executive chef Roy Soundranayagam has also played a big part in establishing the restaurant in Dubai. He is quick to promote the chain's unwavering consistency. "It's the same menu as in Dubai," he explains, before reeling off a list of palate-tickling recommendations. "To start, I'd go for the calamari or the vegetarian dish, the halloumi cheese - that's very nice. I would then go for the US fillet steak, or the Australian rib-eye. And I'd finish with the South African malva pudding."
Like Sho Cho and The Noodle House at Souq Qaryat, The Meat Co is open for business. But a recent visit to the restaurant revealed numerous rough edges that suggest it was opened to the public prematurely. Had there been any problems in setting up in Abu Dhabi? "Just red-tape issues," says Lynn with a sanguine tone. "That was probably the biggest stumbling block we had. Trying to get reliable suppliers for the small items was a bit of a story. But our main beef supplier has been looking after us for the last four years, so the main products are taken care of. All the other niggly things we've sorted out since we opened."
There has been a similar state of affairs over at Sho Cho. "Unfortunately we've had some delays, but you know how things go here - we haven't been able to serve a full menu yet because the building forgot to give us an extractor fan," says Dabbous with good humour. "We're also training the staff as we go along, which is something we don't usually do. But we are only open at night, which means that we can do the training during the day, so it's not such a bad thing."
For Dabbous, such teething troubles are nothing new. "I remember nine years ago when I opened Sho Cho Dubai, a similar thing happened," he says. "I had set an opening date and the kitchen equipment hadn't arrived, so we couldn't use the kitchen for a month and we only served sushi and salad. But it was a good way to introduce people to the menu. In fact, it was much better that way." Despite the inevitable setbacks involved with opening a new restaurant, Dabbous is convinced that Sho Cho, The Meat Co and The Noodle House can help to usher in a new era of dining in Abu Dhabi. "I don't see why it shouldn't be even better because the money is there and the people are open to change. What I really like about it is that it's expanding in a proper manner," he adds.
So will Abu Dhabi's burgeoning restaurant scene have its own distinct character? "One hundred per cent, yes." he declares emphatically. "I think the people of Abu Dhabi really know the way forward, especially the new people who have moved there. They are lower-key in certain ways but know what they want. In Dubai people want to see and be seen. Here, people know what they like and are great clients, because they really appreciate what you give them. I think Abu Dhabi will have its own market and its own spirit and flair, so I'm very excited about it. It's very young so I think our initial problems are normal."
According to Carolyn Mitchell, this is the start of something very significant. "Certainly, listening to the people I met in Abu Dhabi, there was a real excitement about this souq opening. I think it will become a landmark on the Abu Dhabi eating scene," she says. Perhaps she's right. After all, it wouldn't be the first time a souq was at the hub of an exciting, expanding and influential social development in the Middle East.