Penelope Walsh goes shopping with Ronda Locatelli’s chefs ahead of the launch of the restaurant’s new menu.
Last time Time Out encountered London-based, Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli (visiting his Dubai venture Ronda Locatelli), he enthusiastically discussed two of his favourite topics: white truffles and sustainable sourcing. At his Michelin-starred London restaurant Locanda Locatelli, he argued, his aim was to put money directly into the hands of those who produced the food he served and to buy locally. But is the same feat possible right here in the emirate?
At Time Out Dubai, we try to bang the drum, loudly, in support of the UAE’s local food scene and home-grown initiatives. And while the importance of sustainability is something of a war cry for many visiting chefs, we’ve encountered few who do not follow up with the caveat that in Dubai, (as opposed to England or Australia), this is not an option yet.
Pushing forward with this philosophy, Giorgio Locatelli and his chef de cuisine at Ronda Locatelli, Alessandro Bottazzi have recently tested just how realistic a locally focussed menu is. Following trial and error in exploring options in the UAE, involving everything from sourcing mackerel to mozzarella, Giorgio and Alessandro have launched a four-course promotional menu, available now, as the first trial of what is intended to become a regular sideline to the usual à la carte list. We joined the two chefs for a day at Dubai’s markets to learn the real trials and triumphs of producing a local menu in the UAE.
First stop on our tour is the Shindagha fish market. Here, the selection of fish and seafood is vast, peppered with some intriguing rarities (such as huge, marbled-sized roe from catfish). There are plenty of traders ready to hustle you in to buying (or at least, carrying your fish for you). Yet extracting answers to questions, such as which waters the fish have been removed from, is a little taxing. Giorgio concedes: ‘The way the fish are handled is not ideal, you can see from the eyes, some of this is frozen, not fresh, and see, how they are opening the gills to show you. They shouldn’t do this’. It seems this experience is fairly far removed from Giorgio’s usual dealings with fishermen that supply Locanda Locatelli in London. ‘Sometimes they call the restaurant directly from the boat to tell you what they have. If you come and eat late at the restaurant, you might get fish that is just fresh in.’ Still, from the selection at the market in Dubai, Giorgio and Alessandro find viable options for the menu, with local mackerel (which will be served pickled with a selection of organic, local vegetables as a starter), and sea bass (pan fried with fennel salad as a main course).
Aside from fish, we query, how difficult has it been to source local meat and poultry? ‘We found local baby lamb, which we added to the menu,’ says Alessandro. ‘But it is the only thing we have had a complaint about from a customer!’ One diner, apparently, found the texture of the meat so unaccustomed for lamb, he insisted it must be mutton. ‘I had to bring out the lamb leg and show him how small it is, too small to be mutton!’ Alessandro jokes.
Across the Creek from the fish market is Dubai’s iconic spice souk, a gold mine of ingredients from the wider region (if not the UAE), including premium saffron from Iran. Giorgio’s wife has found it a fruitful shopping paradise, he jokes, for amusing souvenirs to take home to friends. But he says, the spice souk has little relevance for the restaurant. Italian cuisine, he explains, does not use the spices and flavourings typically sold there, and (although saffron is seen in Italian recipes), Alessandro adds that even the type of saffron available at the souk differs wildly from Spanish-grown saffron, (and the method of extracting flavour) typically seen in Italian and Spanish cooking. In respect to this, Alessandro later explains that items from Italy (such as aged D.O.P. balsamic vinegar) have been used on the menu, alongside the other locally sourced ingredients to maintain an authentic Italian flavour in the recipes. Other local food options mooted and discussed include locally smoked fish. ‘Now that, I don’t see the point of,’ Giorgio counters. ‘It would be different if they were smoking local fish, but not if it’s being flown in from Europe.’
Among a surprising wealth of UAE-based companies making traditional Italian cheeses, Giorgio and Alessandro have paid visits to some factories to sample the products. Giorgio reveals that although the mozzarella sampled did not quite make the grade, he has been reasonably impressed with the burrata and ricotta produced in the UAE. For now, one UAE-produced cheese has impressed enough to make it onto the local menu at the restaurant. Primo sale (a fresh cow’s milk cheese, traditional to Sicily and Sardinia), made with milk from Saudi Arabia by a dairy farm in Ras Al Khaimah. There are however yet more UAE-inspired touches on the promotional menu, with a final course of camel’s milk ice-cream.
Neighbouring the fish market is the fruit and vegetable market. Further exploration uncovers an entire section dedicated to dates and a few lone traders sitting next to boxes of what Giorgio tells us are the UAE’s elusive desert truffles. They look and taste much like a potato, and require lengthy cooking in stews or similar dishes. However, this local truffle will not make it onto the menu, he states firmly. Giorgio fears that diners will anticipate and expect a similar sensation to Italian truffles and be disappointed by this very different eating experience.
Vendors here seem to be a little more open about where the aubergines, melons and cucumber have come from. Jordan, Lebanon and India are among the most common answers, but Giorgio and Alessandro are looking for more produce grown in the UAE. The decision has been made to explore what RIPE has to offer, a local aggregate for regional, organic produce. According to Alessandro, RIPE is already working with other restaurants at Atlantis The Palm, and this precedent makes the logistics of signing them up as a supplier to Ronda Locatelli a little easier. As such, our next stop on the food tour is RIPE’s bijou grocery store in Al Manara, (where Giorgio’s impromptu visit provokes amusing reactions from the regular customers going about their weekly shop).
Here, with a bunch of irregularly, organically shaped radishes in hand, Giorgio laments how this natural occurrence would never make it onto a supermarket shelf in Dubai.
Having encountered many an Italian chef within the emirate disappointed with aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, oranges and more that they consider not up to the standard of Italian-grown equivalents, do these two chefs have similar opinions? Giorgio states firmly that unless these chefs are looking for a specific variety of aubergine used to make Sicilian caponata, he can’t understand the emphasis on fresh produce from Italy. As such, all the fresh vegetables used on this new promotional menu are organic and provided by RIPE.
With summer approaching, production at farms in the UAE will begin to slow down. Aware of this, chef de cuisine Alessandro explains as the supply of local ingredients trickles out, so too will the local menu. But where possible the restaurant will continue to include local products on the main menu, aiming for a full relaunch of the promotional menu, once the season picks up in winter.
The four-course local menu promotion is Dhs195 per person (food only). Available until further notice. Ronda Locatelli, Atlantis The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 426 2626).
Ethical dining around town
Dubai’s best sustainably minded food experiences, from London’s top chefs to Lebanese street food.
Baker & Spice
Winner of Time Out Dubai’s best café award for two consecutive years, Baker & Spice has been a pioneer of the local food scene, launching Dubai’s first farmers’ market and serving a menu that, as far as possible, uses local, organic fresh produce and local, sustainable fish.
Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Dubai (04 425 2240). Other location: Dubai Marina, behind Marina Promenade (04 362 4686).
Housed within a bijou, French-owned design boutique, this little lunch room has an equally trend-conscious food concept, with a daily changing menu of healthy dishes prepared with respect to raw, macrobiotic and gluten-free principles. The fresh produce comes from UAE-based company Greenheart Organic Farms and the café also uses locally produced coffee and teas.
Jumeirah Beach Road, opposite Beach Centre (04 385 4555).
Massaad BBQ Farm to Table
Here, you can expect a classic and uncomplicated menu of Levantine street food favourites (grills, wraps and more). The difference at this venue however, is that up to 90 percent of the ingredients used are sourced from the local region, including fresh chickens, reared within the UAE. There are already two branches in Dubai and the concept has proved fruitful enough to warrant a third branch coming to Silicon Oasis.
The Walk, JBR, Dubai Marina (04 362 9002). Other location: City Tower, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 358 9776).
Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar
Michelin-awarded Indian chef Atul Kochhar expresses a strong commitment to environmental issues. While his London kitchen has a fairly hardcore, waste-free policy, Dubai restaurant Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar follows this sustainable policy with the use of locally sourced ingredients, such as seafood from the Gulf and cheese made with UAE milk in Sharjah.
JW Marriott Marquis, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 414 3000).
The Taste Initiative
The dining destination within Dubai’s first and only sustainably themed department store shares this ecological philosophy, with respect paid to seasonal and local sourcing on the menu. Recycled materials are used to make much of the kitchenware on which your meal is served.
The Change Initiative, Al Barsha (800 824).
The fine French restaurant shares the hotel’s commitment to sustainability and is a partner in the EWS-WWF Choose Wisely campaign. The menu always includes marked choices for local, sustainable fish and local ingredients, such as UAE cheese.
Park Hyatt Dubai, Deira (04 317 2222).
Highly commended in this year’s café category at the Time Out Dubai Restaurant Awards, ‘local’ is a strong part of Urban Bistro’s culinary identity, supporting UAE companies that produce fresh ingredients as well as cheese and coffee. Urban Bistro even encourages diners to opt for local water, which is complimentary, in contrast to imported water, which is chargeable.
CNN Building 2, Dubai Media City (04 362 4330).