I think I have finally figured out why middle- and (especially) upper-middle-class Indians like Dubai so much. They see it as an idealised Indian city; as something that should exist in India but does not because all the poor people get in the way.
If you’ve been to Dubai, you’ll see what it is that Indians like about it. First of all, it is very clean. (At least in the areas that tourists go to.) Secondly, it is entirely safe. Forget your camera in a cab and the taxi driver will find you to return it.
Third, there is no low-level corruption. Everything is relatively easy to accomplish. There is no question of paying bribes or having to wait for hours.
And then there’s the glitz and the glamour. Dubai is a mall-lovers paradise. You can get lost in places like the Dubai Mall. And everything you can imagine – and every brand under the sun – is readily available.
The hotels are world class. They have the sheen of first-world hotels with the staffing level of third-world properties: an ideal situation in the hospitality business.
I started out being hostile to Dubai, then I became ambivalent, and now I’m slowly becoming a convert to the charms (I use the term in its loosest sense) of Dubai. I’ve started to see it as a first-world city run by third-world people, many, if not most, of whom are Indians and Pakistanis.
One factor that has helped mitigate my old hostility is the quality of the hospitality. There are big, ugly, over-the-top hotels. But there are also classy and sophisticated establishments.
The best of the new international hotels is probably the Four Seasons (the chain has taken its time to get to Dubai). It is a lovely, low-rise, resort-type property, built in an elegant and subtle style in a city where gold is the new black.
For Indians (and discerning foreigners), however, there really is no better choice than the Oberoi. Though the Oberoi Group opened five-star hotels all over the world (Singapore, Colombo and much of the Middle East, for instance) in the 1970s, it gave Dubai a miss.
Then, just under two years ago, it opened a medium-sized (around 200 rooms) property in the emerging hub of Business Bay.
In terms of style, it is in direct descent from the classy new Oberoi hotels that the company opened from the 1990s onwards and reminds one of why the Oberoi Group is to South Asia, what say, the Mandarin Oriental or the Peninsula are to Hong Kong: Asian hospitality with a luxury focus that has now gone global.
I spent two nights there and while it was everything you would expect of an Oberoi (stylish, discreet, luxurious, etc) I was most intrigued by the emphasis on personalisation.
What a delight! Ananta, at The Oberoi, Dubai, serves a largely north-Indian menu. But dinner lived up to chef Saneesh Verghese’s reputation.
Everybody in the hotel seemed to know every guest by name. Regular guests found photos of themselves on the walls of their rooms, on the coasters on the table and even on the key cards.
While the Oberois have long been renowned for the quality of their service, personalisation has never been the company’s strong point. It was the Taj that personalised the experience in the 20th century and ITC that took over the slot that the Taj had vacated in this century.
But this kind of personalisation (I can honestly say that I have never seen anything of this magnitude in any hotel in the world) marks a change of style for the Oberoi group.
Given how much care they take of their regulars (and that includes guests who use Oberoi hotels in India), anyone who is a frequent Oberoi guest would be nuts to stay elsewhere. This may well be the best service in Dubai.
I ate dinner both nights I was there at the hotel. On the first day, I had the tasting menu at Umai, the Japanese restaurant. The food was outstanding (except for a slightly disappointing duck with five-spice powder) and the ingredients (Japanese beef, Hokkaido scallops, etc) were first rate.
On my second night I went to Ananta, the hotel’s Indian restaurant, largely because I have been an admirer of the chef Saneesh Verghese since his time at Amaranta at the Oberoi in Gurgaon.
Saneesh’s strengths are his south Indian food and his fish-cooking so it was a surprise to find him serving a largely north Indian menu. But a good chef will triumph in most situations, and dinner lived up to Saneesh’s reputation.
I’ve written before about the number of Indian chefs who have opened in Dubai (Atul Kochhar, Sanjeev Kapoor, Vineet Bhatia, Himanshu Saini, etc) but the city’s reputation as the restaurant capital of the Middle East rests on its London spin-offs: Coya, La Petite Maison, Zuma, Hakkasan, The Ivy, Wheeler’s of St James’, etc.
Initially, I was somewhat resistant to the idea of going to a branch of a London restaurant (why not just go to the original?) but this time I relented and went to La Petite Maison telling myself that as the original is in Nice, it was not really a London restaurant.
I knew this was a subterfuge. While La Petite Maison has been a French Riviera institution for years, its fame only spread beyond a tight circle of Riviera-lovers when the London version (owned by Arjun Waney, who also owns Zuma and Coya) opened. And the Dubai branch is clearly in direct descent from London rather than Nice.
I went for lunch on a dry day, thinking that LPM (as it is known as) would be empty. In fact, it was jam-packed. And at nearly 4pm, they were still turning people away for lunch.
This is all the more surprising because the restaurant has no real roadside signage. You take an escalator to the first floor of an unremarkable building and you find it only if you know where to look. The crowds had come because of word-of-mouth.
I like the London version – a favourite of rich Indians when they get tired of Kai, Royal China and Hakkasan – but not enough to go back again and again. So I was surprised when the food at the Dubai branch was so much better than London (as was the service – efficient and courteous).
Everything I had was top-notch: creamy scrambled eggs, lamb chops, nicely pink in the middle, a great sea bass, and more. It is not hard to see why it does so well.
France, London and now Dubai:La Petite Maison serves a great sea bass and more. It is not hard to see why it does so well
My childhood friend Rita Mehta took me to Nusret for lunch the next day. I have vague memories of Nusret from my trips to Turkey (they have six branches there) but I seem to remember it as a mid-market restaurant there.
In Dubai however, it is very top-end (next to Coya, also located at the Four Seasons but independently managed). From what I recall the restaurant got its name from the chef Nusr, who was supposed to be great at choosing cuts of meat.
I was sceptical about a Turkish steakhouse charging such high prices. But when the food arrived, I had to eat my words (along with the meal). Rita and I first shared slices of steak in a buttery sauce, then we had more grills before ending up with a strip loin.
The names were meaningless (I thought Lokum was Turkish Delight not steak!) to me but the beef was so outstanding and so perfectly cooked that it took my breath away.
The triple-cooked chips were a nod to Heston Blumenthal but they were far better than the version Blumenthal serves at The Hinds Head. All in all, it was the most surprising – and the best – meal I had on the trip.
Afterwards other chefs told me that Nusr uses strange marinades for the beef but I really don’t care. It was the best steak I’d had in a long time.
Which brings us back to where we started. In an idealised, modern, upper middle-class-dominated India, it would be possible to run a great steakhouse – even with a Turkish pedigree.
But sadly, in the real India, the law will make it difficult for you to do it. And in Bombay, our most modern city, they’ll put you in jail for daring to put steak on the menu.
That’s why affluent Indians like Dubai. It lets you do all the things you can’t do at home. And you never feel awkward or ill at ease while doing them.
From HT Brunch, June 7
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