Travel: Dine out in excess in Dubai

Desert safari organised by Travco Safari in Dubai. Picture: PA Photo.Desert safari organised by Travco Safari in Dubai. Picture: PA Photo.
Desert safari organised by Travco Safari in Dubai. Picture: PA Photo.
Earlier this year, Zagat launched its first restaurant guide for Dubai, reflecting the growing number of gourmet restaurants opening in the Middle East.

Ryan Hooper sets off in search of the country’s top tables.

A city famous for its extravagance and excess, Dubai strives to offer consumers the very best of everything. But for all its majestic buildings, grand shopping malls and opulent social spaces, the city is still missing something it desperately craves - a Michelin star.

Yet the gourmet scene in this wealthy Emirate is growing at an exciting rate. A number of high-profile chefs have taken up residence here, offshoots of Michelin-starred international restaurants have opened (Nobu Matsuhisa and Gary Rhodes have premises here) and, earlier this year, restaurant guide Zagat launched its first guide dedicated to Dubai.

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I’m not a fan of flexing my credit card in designer shops, but the idea of a weekend spent eating my way through some of the world’s top restaurants was certainly alluring.

“There are 10 or so chefs here (in Dubai) who can cook properly,” says Thomas Pendarovski, head chef at the Sofitel Jumeirah’s Rococo, one of the city’s top dining spots.

“But we are about 10 years behind. I know we can get a Michelin star, and I want to be one of the first to be recognised here in the Michelin world. I truly believe what we do, nobody else does.”

A quick glance through the menus of some of Dubai’s renowned eateries would appear to confirm such a boast.

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At the Burj Khalifa’s signature Armani restaurant - part-way up the world’s tallest building - views of the magnificent water and city lights are matched only by the fabulous fare on offer.

The opulent six-course tasting menu features the finest foie gras, seafood and meat, and is concluded by a gorgeous gianduja dessert - the sort of art-meets-pudding chocolate concoction that would make Willy Wonka blush.

Priced at around £190, the full eating experience represents decent value for money for those looking for a high-end way to mark a stay in Dubai. The same menu - without the six glasses of wine which accompany the meal - can be selected at around half the price.

Chef Pendarovski’s own entree at the Rococo - diver sea scallop with fennel foam and Granny Smith apple - sets the tone for the rest of his tasting menu, which also acknowledges Dubai’s seafood culinary heritage.

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The beetroot sorbet - a “fluke” by the chef’s own admission - is a romance of scents and sweet-sour tastes, served as a single pear-shaped nugget of vivid maroon. It represents the variety and imagination of the gourmet cuisine on offer.

Steak, too, features heavily on many a menu. And there can be few better than Fairmont Dubai’s own steakhouse, the Exchange Grill - one of several restaurants within the hotel - famous for its fine cuts of beef.

The 18oz sirloin, cooked on the bone, is a thing of beauty, while other signature dishes have ensured the steakhouse has a clutch of honours recognising the young head chef’s attention to detail and consideration for how each meal is cooked.

It is one of nearly a dozen eating venues at the plush hotel, where almost every conceivable cuisine is catered for with gusto. It’s no wonder locals eat out for, on average, 11 meals a week.

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Typically, local diners eat at hotel restaurants where Dubai’s strict laws on alcohol are very much relaxed. It means many menus come with two set prices - one with alcohol and one without - with the ‘dry’ option usually costing around half the price.

Of all the week’s meals, the Friday brunch is clearly a favourite. At Fairmont The Palm’s Frevo restaurant, the Brazilian-themed dining experience has earned a reputation among locals and visitors alike.

After a fish soup starter and salad buffet bar for the second course - themselves enough to represent a sizeable feast - the waiters bring on the meat.

The rest is like a quiz show of the tastiest kind. An illuminated buzzer in the centre of the table notifies the army of chefs when the guests are fit to burst, or whether there is still room for another slice of wagyu beef.

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Costing around £81 for the all-you-can eat menu and caprilia cocktails (£50 without the alcohol), the brunch is usually scored by a Brazilian band, or a singer and a guitarist, providing a fittingly raucous musical accompaniment to this highlight in the week’s calendar.

Considering most use this as the first meal of the day - and of their weekend, which runs Friday to Saturday - three courses may seem like something of a carnivorous excess. Yet teetering weightily on the edge of submission, it is almost impossible - if not rude - to turn down another slither of finely-cut steak.

“Friday brunch is the English Saturday night,” says John Cordeaux, the restaurant’s head chef, originally from Lincolnshire, now in Dubai via Canada.

“This is all about meat. Unfortunately there are no local ingredients here, which is a shame, but you can get almost anything here in Dubai, which makes so much possible.”

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Considering Dubai used to consist of little more than a few settlements working off the river, it’s hard to gauge the true identity of authentic regional cuisine.

Any local chefs have mostly been dwarfed by the newcomers, the renowned chefs looking to capitalise on one of the Middle East’s biggest tourist destinations.

Those wanting to sample something with its roots in the UAE ought to venture into the desert on a Travco safari, where a Top Gear-style traipse across arid terrain yields not only picture postcard views but unlimited plates of slow-cooked meats and rices, served with enough liquid refreshment to satisfy even the thirstiest of pilgrims.

Sitting on mats set around a makeshift outdoor stage at dusk, it’s easy to see why so many foodies are keen to combine the finest foods of new Dubai with a few of the old favourites.

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A swift flight from Heathrow with Qantas, barely troubling the six-hour mark, means Dubai is a manageable option for a long weekend gourmet break. And given the growing trend for holidaymakers to choose trips based on menu options, I wonder if Dubai’s star might be ascending - Michelin-rated or not.

Travel facts

Ryan Hooper was a guest of the Dubai Tourist Board. Visit or call 020 7321 6110 for more information.

Three nights at the Fairmont Dubai (, including flights with Qantas from London Heathrow, start from £789 per person, half board, for travel until December 12, 2013, bookable up to that date. To book call 0871 703 4240 or visit

The Travco Desert Safari costs £70 per person, including the meal. Visit for further details.

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