The Taste With Vir: The Michelin guide to enjoying Dubai's restaurant scene - Hindustan Times
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The Taste With Vir: The Michelin guide to enjoying Dubai's restaurant scene

By, Delhi
May 30, 2023 12:17 PM IST

As Michelin has demonstrated, Dubai is not quite a gourmet paradise. But it does have excellent restaurants at all price levels.

I have always been ambivalent about Dubai’s restaurant scene. I know that most Indian visitors to the emirate regard it as a gourmet paradise. And Dubai itself has successfully created an image for itself and made people believe that it has some of the world’s best restaurants. Last year, Dubai persuaded Michelin to publish a guide to the city and to award stars to Dubai’s restaurants.

The Taste With Vir: The Michelin guide to enjoying Dubai's restaurant scene(Pexels)
The Taste With Vir: The Michelin guide to enjoying Dubai's restaurant scene(Pexels)

Michelin is a no-nonsense kind of guide. So, it said what I thought should have been obvious to begin with. Not one restaurant in Dubai deserved the highest rating of three stars. (Singapore has three restaurants with that honour; Hong Kong had seven and even little Kyoto in Japan has six.) Only two Dubai restaurants deserved two stars. But 11 were good enough to get single stars.

My view that Michelin had got it right was met with disdain and scepticism in Dubai where not only do they believe their own hype but they have also been misled by the over-generous estimation of other guides which have over-praised mediocre restaurants or have just applied local Dubai standards to judging restaurants.

In Dubai, there is no bigger success than Zuma. Though Nobu has been around for 15 years (and does very well), it is Zuma (in itself a Nobu rip-off) that locals venerate. Every restaurateur wants to open a Zuma-type restaurant and you will find sushi on the menu of everything from steak houses to curry houses. To its credit, the Zuma sushi can be good. But it is junk sushi that rules in the rest of Dubai.

Dubai has local favourites like the dismal Gaia that regularly comes near the top of regional lists. There is no tradition of negative restaurant reviews in the Dubai mainstream media so nobody writes an objective review. And restaurateurs and chefs believe their own publicity.

Michelin has told the truth. For instance, restaurants like Zuma, Gaia and even Orfali (great fun but hardly the best restaurant in the Middle East!) have not got even a single star despite their standing in local and regional food listings. For that reason alone (apart from its global stature) Michelin deserves to be respected as the best guide to good food in Dubai.

(Also Read | The Taste With Vir: Indian cuisine on the verge of take-off in New York)

You could argue that I am pro-Michelin because it has finally given Dubai’s Indian restaurants the respect they deserve. The first guide gave two stars to restaurants by Yannick Alleno and Niko Romito, French and Italian chefs who had three-star restaurants in their home countries. You know what Michelin is like, they said in Dubai. It only honours Europeans.

So imagine the general consternation last week when Michelin published its latest guide. Tresind Studio, a chef-driven Indian restaurant run by Himanshu Saini, became the third restaurant in Dubai to get two stars.

Though great Indian chefs all over the world have got two stars for their restaurants in the past, they have since moved away from those stars.

Srijith Gopinath left the two-star Campton Place in San Francisco and Gaggan Anand gave up his stars when he closed his restaurant during the pandemic. (He has since re-opened so the stars should be back in the next Michelin Guide to Thailand.)

At present, Himanshu is the only Indian-born chef to have a two Michelin star restaurant. There is the brilliant Mano Thevar whose Thevar in Singapore has two stars but Mano is Malaysia-born and bred and cooks diaspora food rather than more typically Indian food. Tresind’s sister restaurant Avatara also got a star and its chef Omkar Walve won Young Chef of the Year. All in all, it was a stunning endorsement of Indian food in Dubai.

But there were also a lot of other great restaurants on the list of Michelin one-star places. Hakkasan (run by chef Andy Toh who has cooked in India before) takes the global Hakkasan menu and makes it Andy’s own. The star is well deserved.

Torno Subito is Massimo Bottura’s attempt to capture the fun and glamour of sixties Rome. It’s too casual to get two Michelin stars but I think it has the best Italian food in the city. (Though some would give that honour to Niko Romito’s two-star restaurant). Tasca is the Dubai outpost of the Portuguese chef Jose Avillez’s empire. I am a fan of Avillez’s food and would recommend Tasca to anyone looking for an elegant lunch with serious food.

Of the newcomers to Dubai, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal is the great chef’s second-best restaurant after his flagship The Fat Duck. The chef in Dubai, Tom Allen, has taken Blumenthal’s legacy and made it resonate despite using only those ingredients that are locally available. It is, for my money, one of the three great restaurants in Dubai. The other two? Tresind Studio and Ossiano.

In fact, though Ossiano retained a star, I reckoned it should have got two. I had dinner there last week and was blown away by the creativity and excellence of chef Gregoire Berger’s cooking. His menu told the story of his childhood, from growing up in Brittany to travelling the world. Each dish captured an emotion. We had Japanese milk bread with a baton of foie gras which had started out as a foie gras candle (seeing is believing). The chef’s first trip to New York was represented by a lobster hot dog that looked simple but was a masterpiece of ingenuity. A fresh Mediterranean mullet was cooked at the table in a salt crust.

I’m not sure how Michelin screwed up on the second star for Ossiano. But if you want the best modern French food in the region, Ossiano is where you should go.

I ate at lots of other places last week in Dubai too. Ariana Bundy is a well-known Iranian chef and TV presenter. Ariana’s Persian Kitchen is her first restaurant and Michelin liked it so much that it gave it an award for being the Best Opening of the Year.

Indians will enjoy it more than the usual hummus-shawarma Middle Eastern restaurants in Dubai because so much of our cuisine is influenced by Iranian food. We will recognise the flavours as well as many of the dishes. (It serves the original Iranian falooda.)

There are many other restaurants in Dubai which I enjoy though they don’t make it to lists of the top restaurants. Each time I go to Dubai Mall, I eat at Café De Paris, a branch of the famous Geneve restaurant. It is a single dish menu: Steak in a special sauce with thin chips. (There is a rival chain called L’Entrecote, which is French, where the sauce is different but I prefer the Swiss original.) It’s not expensive: It is a mall restaurant. But the service is always excellent and the steak sauce never disappoints.

I like Milos too. This is a branch of the global American-Greek chain which serves sort-of-Greek food, steaks and fresh fish. It’s large and booming but the service is outstanding and there is a real sense of hospitality about the place. It is like a cross between two other Dubai restaurants: Nammos and Gaia. But it's so much better than either.

And there’s always Nobu. The original Nobu at Atlantis has gone. (A restaurant by Bjorn Frantzen, the Swedish super-chef will take its place). But the largest Nobu in the world has opened on a higher floor in the same hotel and it is suitably glamorous.

My favourite Nobu, however, is next door at Royal Atlantis, right by the beach. The menu is different. Who knew that Nobu made such great Wagyu sandos? And the Nobu classics like rock shrimp tempura are beautifully turned out.

So yes, you can eat very well in Dubai. As Michelin has demonstrated, it is not quite a gourmet paradise. But it does have excellent restaurants at all price levels.

(I have written at greater length about the Michelin awards ceremony in Rude Food this weekend.)

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