As with all the Zabeel Saray’s dining outlets, Al Nafoorah looks fantastic. Intricate dark-wood carvings line the iwan-style archways that reach up towards the restaurant’s high ceiling, while a midnight blue colour scheme accentuates the regal ambience of the huge venue. But far from feeling echoey and empty, the restaurant was filled with bubbling chatter and the gentle plucks of oud music.
We took a table next to the fountain in the middle of the restaurant and were soon joined be a three-tier platter of olives, pickles, pine nuts and carrot slices, which we nibbled as we leafed through page upon page of hot and cold mezze, soup, fish and meat. The extent of the menu was, in a word, quite intimidating and we had little choice but to call upon the waiter for a recommendation. Unfortunately for us, our waiter’s interpretation of a recommendation was to recite the menu in full. Stopping him at the fourth page, I eventually persuaded him to help us choose just one dish and he finally suggested the warak enab (stuffed vine leaves). We supplemented this with an order of shanklish, Al Nafoorah houmous and kibbeh nayyeh (raw lamb mince), which my date informed me, in no uncertain terms, I would be finishing myself.
My complaints were instead reserved for the moment of madness when I thought it would be a good idea to order raw lamb mince. I’ll be the first to concede that I’m on a steep learning curve when it comes to Middle Eastern cuisine, but I was expecting more from the kibbeh than the violent pink purée that sat before me. Why, I don’t know; the menu clearly stated that the dish consisted only of raw mince, but I was under the impression that it would be embellished with something other than a few sprigs of mint. Sadly, said embellishment didn’t do anything for the taste, or lack thereof, and I was left scooping up sticky meat purée as my date smugly enjoyed the shanklish, a vibrant yet simple combination of crumbled cow’s-milk cheese, onion, tomato and a liberal dash of olive oil.
The warak enab was equally tasty – the slippery vine-leaf parcels giving way to chewy mouthfuls of glutinous rice, brought to life with a thoughtful application of parsley and mint. Both the shanklish and the warak enab were triumphant in their simplicity and sang with taste and texture. Likewise, the houmous was good, though I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to differentiate it from that served in any other Lebanese restaurant.
Our speedy waiter was soon scurrying around serving our main course. My date had opted for the lobster (at what felt like a reasonable Dhs180), whereas I indulged a guilty pleasure by ordering the grilled veal fillet, which was served on a small skewer above a glistening bed of vegetables. The meat was divinely tender and the sautéed peppers were enlivened wonderfully by a sprinkling of rosemary. My date was very pleased with her lobster, despite our busy-bodied waiters forgetting to bring the rice. Her request for this was met with confusion and then, inevitably, a quick turn of pace back to the kitchen.
A snowy mound of white rice soon emerged and we were able to continue with what was developing into a decent dining experience. Reaching over to pillage some of the contents from my date’s plate, I found her lobster competently prepared, though lacking any thoughtful application of spice or herbs that had benefited the other dishes so well. Still, this is a minor criticism of an otherwise good dish.
Our empty plates were soon replaced by another multi-tiered platter offering fresh slices of melon, served alongside a cool, creamy milk pudding, which was smothered in golden honey. This conclusion summed up all that was good about a meal – the simple things had been done so well that it was hard to criticise the kitchen for any lack of ambition. With such well-prepared staples, Al Nafoorah’s second coming is certainly fit for a sheikh.
The bill (for two)
1x Warak enab zaite Dhs35
1x Shanklish Dhs35
1x Al Nafoorah houmous Dhs35
1x Grilled lobster Dhs180
1x Grill veal fillet Dhs160
1x Large still water Dhs30
Total (excluding service) Dhs475