Despite what some tourists might think, in Dubai it’s not often that you see a camel – or, for that matter, a specialist Emirati restaurant. Then we discovered Al Fanar, a venue not only claiming to be the first and only Emirati restaurant in Dubai (which isn’t entirely true), but also flanked on the outside by camels (okay, they’re fake, but from afar they’re quite convincing). Our intertwined fates for that evening were sealed.

In fact, the entire outdoor setting was given over to fake animals, a truck and posed mannequins – it was like something from a museum display. Yet amid these theme-park-worthy elements was a beautifully atmospheric canal-side setting, with majlis-style seating in private huts and secluded corners.

By this stage, you’d be forgiven for thinking Al Fanar is a tourist trap – we were wondering the same as we walked inside. Here the themed charm continued with a fake stonewashed courtyard (complete with a majestic fake tree in the centre). Yet surprisingly, the place appeared to be populated entirely by locals. By the time we’d taken a seat in a cosy booth and begun perusing the menu (which doubled as a palm-frond fan), our excitement was tangible.

As soon as we were seated, a small, complimentary bowl of chickpeas arrived to whet our appetite. We then ordered, and the food began to arrive at ever-increasing speed. The shorbat adas (lentil soup) was smooth and fragrantly spiced. The naghar mashwi (grilled squid) was good, with a pleasantly hefty charcoal smokiness, and the hobool (deep-fried sacks of fish roe) were an excitingly new experience. It was the main courses that arrived with particular alacrity.

At the time, in our hunger and excitement, we were initially pleased, but the speed at which they arrived may have been the downfall of one or two dishes. The saloona laham del tamor (lamb stew with dates, served with plain white rice) was hearty and comforting, with juicy and tender chunks of slow-cooked lamb in a thick, sweet sauce. The machboos dajaj (chicken) came with saffron-rich yellow rice that was equally rich in sweet spice flavours, with the particularly lingering hit of cinnamon and clove. The chicken itself, however, was flavoursome but desperately dry.

Yet it was the samak mashwi (grilled sea bass) that let the side down dramatically, arriving entirely raw in the middle. To Al Fanar’s credit, the staff made an effort to make amends. They brought us a complimentary dish of tasty koftat samak (fish cakes), and they replaced the offending item with one that was properly cooked, with sweet crispy skin and moist flesh. However, after that, they didn’t take the sea bass off the bill entirely, and by the time the replacement fish arrived, my friend couldn’t bring herself to even try it. That may have had something to do with the manager’s well-meant but baffling explanation: apparently the fish was frozen, not fresh, so the chef didn’t know how long to cook it for.

Nevertheless, even after this fishy faux pas, Al Fanar still offered little elements of delight and surprise: we loved the metal pots in which the tea was served, and the offer of rose water hand sanitizer at the end of the meal, sprayed out of an elegant copper funnel.

For the most part, the food was enjoyable, but whether it’s the real deal, let alone the best representation of Emirati eating, is almost beside the point. Dining at Al Fanar is an atmospheric experience, and a welcome reminder of where we are in the world – albeit an artificially constructed one. It’s also a wonderful place to take visiting friends and relatives.

The bill (for two)
1x lentil soup Dhs15
1x fried fish eggs Dhs38
1x grilled squid Dhs36
1x lamb saloona Dhs55
1x chicken machboos Dhs42
1x grilled fish Dhs62
1x large water Dhs8
1x juice Dh18
1x pot of mint tea Dhs15
1x karak tea Dhs10
Total (excluding service) Dhs299