May we present, The Alternative Restaurant Awards. From Best Loo to Most Over-The-Top Service
Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire The management wonders why we can’t just let our obsession with Reflets bathrooms go. Our response? When you install 360 degree mirrors in the toilets of one of Dubai’s haughtiest eateries, you ask for it. As vain as we are, even we don’t quite like the look of ourselves at those angles.
Most fawning service
Mango Tree: Finding a winner in this category was difficult. Dubai’s servers often fluctuate between obsequious and indifferent, but rarely find a happy medium. At Mango Tree, however, the waiters went so far as to bow repeatedly as we left the restaurant.
Al Mahara: Many new restaurants opened this year and, as silly as some of them were, none could beat the city’s masters of kitsch, Al Mahara. We couldn’t decide which was more fun: the simulated submarine ride or the dessert that incorporated popping candy on ice cream.
Most overabundant options for seemingly simple accoutrements
Hunters Room & Grill: When dining at Hunters, you may be startled by the myriad salt options set before you. There are 12 in all. We personally didn’t know before our meal that there were so many types of salt in the world. Choose from Hawaiian red volcano salt, to Balinese salt smoked in a coconut. There’s even prehistoric salt from the tips of the Himalayan mountains. Ionised never looked so dull.
Themed restaurant that really works
Prego’s: Cured meat. Lots and lots of it – that’s what we like, and that’s what Prego’s gives in abundance. The restaurant frames the in-house salumeria, which has 20 varieties of Italian salamis and sausages to choose from. Plus, it’s kinda fun watching chef Mauro Cereda haul massive shoulders of beef over his shoulder.
Most conscience friendly
Organic Foods & Café: Not a single pesticide has touched the muffin that’s about to go in your mouth. Not only that, but CEO Nils El Accad has visited the farm that grows the wheat personally. The steak in your salad has had a vegetarian diet, and doesn’t know what an industrial feedlot looks like. And the eggs in your custard were made by hens who got to roam freely, blissfully unaware of their brethren on other farms who are stuffed so full of antibiotics and steroids that they’re barely recognisable as birds. Feel smug. We’ll forgive you.
Best chain disguised as something more
Ruth’s Chris Steak House: It looks like a high-class steakhouse. It’s situated in the Monarch, which just isn’t the type of place to do chains. No Johnny Rockets at this Regal hotel. You think, maybe it has a few locations here and there, you know, like Nobu. Actually, it has more than 130 outlets (and Dubai’s the sixth country they’ve hit). But it does a good job of feigning quaint. And hey, the steaks are good, so who really cares?
Most puzzling restaurant
Manga:An anime-themed restaurant staffed by Filipino chefs, run by an Emirati. The waitresses dress like cartoon school girls, with knee socks and pigtails, and occasionally they do a little dance between courses. Need we say more?
Best spot to fix a sweet tooth
Wafi Gourmet: This glorified Arabic deli has some of the tastiest sweets in town. We love the sticky baklavas, the cream-filled kunafas, and the rich chocolate truffles. We can barely go into Wafi for fear that we’ll once again get sucked into the decadent dessert counter, with its fresh, airy, custard-filled goodies. Please, save us from ourselves.
Magnolia: Vegetarians are well-catered-for in Dubai. There’s no shortage of vegetarian Indian restaurants, and there’s always a few meat-free mezze to choose from at the various Arabic haunts. But if you want something a little upscale (think roast artichoke on a bed of mash), there’s only one place to go, and that’s Magnolia. The Madinat setting doesn’t hurt either.
Most exciting restaurant that has nothing to do with Michelin
Rivington Grill: The hordes love Rivington Grill, and who can blame them? The waiters are the befuddled eccentric sort common in the UK but anathema here. The view of the Burj Dubai is stunning, and the food is so very British, and rather reasonable to boot. Nothing beats the sticky toffee pudding.
Best Karama enclave
Aryaas: The canteen-style eatery may not be much to look at, but this Karama hideaway, opposite LuLu’s Hypermarket, easily serves up some of the best thalis around, and for an embarrassingly reasonable Dhs12. The curries are made fresh every day, and are never the same from one evening to the next. The invariable result is good, clean and exquisitely tasty fare.
Most likely to prevail over an annoying gimmick
Circle: A restaurant so blindly dedicated to the bagel is a scary thing. Given that all soups, sandwiches and burgers here are made with bagels (even if they do happen to be H&H – New York’s finest), it’s easy to be nervous about the quality of the resulting food. Fortunately, the fare at Circle is excellent. Everything, from the lamb burger to the carrot cake, is made from scratch, and made very well.
Most likely to make you homesick (if you’re a Brit)
Rhodes Mezzanine: Bread and butter pudding, jam roly poly, fancy jaffa cakes! It’s like being in the centre of ol’ Blighty. And to finish things off, Gary Rhodes’ kitchen plies you full of scones and jam. If the delicious British fare makes you book the next ticket back to London, we won’t blame you.
Signatures: Signatures was one of those old-school Dubai institutions that served good, high-end grub, but which was flagging in its ability to bring in customers. After taking a break, it relaunched this year with a new morally accountable spin. It is the first restaurant in Dubai to use ingredients grown in a garden out the back (granted, the rest of their food is imported). The wine list is 100 per cent organic, and all the meat is free-range and the fish is sustainable. You may wonder if the food is worth the (probably long) schlep up to Jebel Ali. Our answer? Yup.
Best little café that could
Bistro Madeleine: This little French eatery opened up earlier this year down the hall from megalith French restaurant Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire. At first we laughed at the humble David, throwing pebbles at the Goliath next door. Now, it has happily found its footing and while it may not be courting Michelin it isn’t trying. Rather, it turns out good, modest, classic French fare. Keep at it, little one.
Best kept secret
La Maison d’Hôtes:Who would ever think of looking for an authentic brasserie inside a villa? Not us. And yet, tucked away through the backstreets of Jumeirah lies this little restaurant, which is also a favourite with French expats. Looking for somewhere to get cassoulet? Look no further.
Best Japanese street food
Bento-Ya: Despite the spate of clubby new openings, a Japanese restaurant does not need a DJ to be good. Hence, we’d like to give recognition to a restaurant on the opposite end of the spectrum from Zuma, Nobu and Okku. Bento-Ya – if the name doesn’t give it away – serves bento boxes. And it does it damn well.