Dubai’s Arabic dining revolution

Have you noticed the Middle Eastern restaurant renaissance underway in the emirate?

After it opened in late 2013, our first dining experience at Qbara hit us like walking into a wall, in this case, the restaurant’s 3-D ‘visual’ wall. It was an epiphany: a modern Arabic dining-lounge was, of course, so obviously intrinsically fitting to the spirit of Dubai (arguably the most progressive and open dining hub in the Arab world), why had it never been done before? Surely this new Middle Eastern dining model would spark a trend – or better still, a new era of home-grown, grown-up restaurants of an international-standard, but inspired by the region itself. Dubai dining had come of age.

That impression hit us so hard that Qbara walked away with the Time Out Dubai Best Newcomer award in March. In the meantime, Dubai had also become the new home of two celebrity chefs planning their own reworking and reimaging of the region’s cooking, both due to open in 2014. Now, Turkish-Bulgarian chef Silvena Rowe opens her signature concept, Omnia by Silvena in mid July on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard; Australian-Lebanese chef Greg Malouf, opens his first Dubai venture in September, in DIFC.

For Qbara, comparisons with Zuma continue to be rife: just as Zuma made Japanese dining fun, enticing and ‘of the moment’, Qbara set about doing the same with Middle Eastern cooking. Not so surprising though, with the same chef that opened Zuma London, Dubai and Istanbul, Colin Clague, responsible for Qbara’s menu. ‘A lot of the same people that were involved in Zuma Dubai, are behind Qbara,’ chef Colin explains. ‘They told me, we are going to do something similar, but an Arabic restaurant, and the basis behind it is that this venue will be created in Dubai and to then export it overseas, instead of bringing a concept into Dubai. Elmar Pichorner and Patrick John [who worked on the opening concepts for One&Only Royal Mirage, and Zuma Dubai] had this idea festering in their minds for years. They saw so many ideas coming into Dubai, and they thought there is something here that we can do by ourselves.’

‘It’s an idea that has been with us for many, many years,’ Elmar Pichorner confirms. ‘Patrick John and myself have been working together on and off for 15 years. We always thought that cultural heritage lent itself to be reinterpreted in a very contemporary way. And we tried it for many years in Dubai. At Celebrities restaurant in the One&Only Royal Mirage, we wanted originally to do contemporary Arabic food. This is 15 years ago, and back then our bosses thought this was far too progressive and the market wouldn’t understand it. Then we tried it again with Ninas. The name means ‘Not Indian, Not Arabic’, because when you research Arabic food, there is a lot of influence and exchange [with Indian food]. But there again, the restaurant became more Indian than anything else. We were very much inspired by the work of Rainer Becker with Zuma, and by Nobu’ Elmar continues. ‘At the time, everyone thought Nobu was very radical, but nobody had done it successfully with Middle Eastern culture. It took a long, long time to find investors that were prepared to take this progressive approach. It was a little bit scary.

‘When you deal with such an old culture, to do something really, really new, it is difficult to work with professionals that grew up within this culture,’ Elmar continues. From the beginning we said if we want to do something really contemporary, we need to work with very responsible professionals who have the integrity to take on such an old culture and start to reinterpret it.’

‘It is very difficult to get someone who has been brought up in this neck of the woods, to think outside the box. I’ve never been inside the box, so I can think outside it,’ agrees chef Colin. At Qbara, this new wave and reinterpretation of Arabic cooking, Colin emphasises, is not about introducing foreign flavour, but bringing it up to date: ‘The word fusion bothers me. Neither what I did at Zuma, nor what I do here is fusion. When I first came, I got all the chefs (who are from Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, you name it) to make dishes their mothers make. Then we would maybe tweak the spices, make the presentation more fine dining.’

Having already operated modern Middle Eastern venues in London and Melbourne respectively, for chefs Silvena Rowe and Greg Malouf, the concept of modern Arabic dining as a Dubai trend, receives a different reaction. Greg Malouf is initially taken aback, but his own career gives some insight into why. ‘Greg Malouf was an inspiration at the end of the day,’ reveals Qbara’s Elmar. ‘All of the ideas that we implemented here were founded in his thinking, because he was one of very few people out there who started to experiment with Middle Eastern food.’

‘I think I’m just so used to it, because I’m used to Melbourne and it’s part of my roots,’ Greg begins. ‘It is happening already,’ Greg tells us. ‘Look at London and Melbourne and you’ll see little trickles of something Middle Eastern on a menu, such as preserved lemons, or chermoula. Melbourne has embraced Middle Eastern food more than any other city, globally. It is the capital of contemporary Middle Eastern food.’

‘I’ve always wanted to cook Middle Eastern food in the Middle East,’ says Greg, ‘but I think I’d be crucified in Beirut,’ he jokes. ‘I really wanted to showcase Middle Eastern and Lebanese food on a pedestal. Dubai is more forgiving. Lebanon doesn’t like a lot of change in what they have been eating for the last 1,000 years, any change has to be very subtle, gentle. There are not a lot of expats in Beirut, and the locals are very wary of you trying to do something like watercress tabouleh – you should have seen my mother’s reaction when she found out,’ he laughs.

Separately, chef Silvena Rowe has a similar take on the scene: ‘I consider myself very boldly to be one of the leaders – it’s my background. I was brought up with Ottoman and Arabic food, they are like brother and sister. For me it is a very natural development. You talked about a ‘trend’ for modern Arabic food, but I was already doing that in Mayfair, London. I wanted to bring modern Arabic to its rightful home, in the heart of Dubai.’

Just as Silvena talks of an inevitable home coming in bringing her food to the Middle East, it seems being in Dubai has in turn provoked a heightened sense of her roots. Chef Silvena talks inspiringly about how the death of her Turkish father encouraged her first professional exploration of the region’s cooking. ‘I rediscovered my roots, and the food I was brought up with, the food I understand, stuffed vine leaves, babbaganoush, mousaka. This was a big turning point for me, it energised me, recharged me, qualified my direction.’ For Silvena, coming to Dubai has also been creatively stimulating. ‘Dubai is happening. I find Dubai limitless. A canvas that I can do my art on, and it is a playing field that is full of positive attitudes.’

‘Provenance’ crops up in conversation with Silvena and is an important word for her work in Dubai, not only in terms of her roots, but also expressing the emphasis she places on a locally and seasonally sourced ‘farm-to-table’ concept. Coming to Dubai has also opened up her cooking repertoire to Emirati food: ‘I am going to play with the most seductive, delicious and alluring flavours that Arabic food has to offer us, with a particular emphasis on Emirati food, and that will make me the only chef doing this. Omnia by Silvena is going to be like a palace of modern Arabic experience-modern Arabic food and modern Arabic art. The interiors are glossy, glitzy, and as progressive as Dubai is. The emirate is evolving all the time as is my food since being here. Omnia by Silvena will be a mirror of that.’

With the trend that Qbara sparked gaining speed over the summer months as Silvena Rowe and Greg Maloufs’ respective restaurant open, is there any anxiety brewing? ‘Yalla! It’s good, I don’t want to be alone!’ jokes Greg Malouf. ‘These guys put their necks on the line by opening Qbara, and I can name half a dozen more that are opening up in the next year,’ says Colin Clague. ‘They’ve seen there is a market for it and it is acceptable. Elmar knew if it was a big enough success it would be copied, but Dubai is big enough to accommodate more. We have to still be cutting edge, do new dishes, and be progressive. Constantly reinventing.’

Beyond inspiring modern Arabic concepts, Elmar agrees the current trend could provoke more home-grown restaurant in the Dubai scene as a whole. ‘Hopefully, we will encourage the local incubation of ideas. That has been missing. If you look at Arabic history, the Middle East was the cradle knowledge for thousands of years. This seems to have turned around and everyone wants to import knowledge to the Middle East. I hope we have shown we can reverse this process. Something which is quintessentially Arabic becomes an export article. That’s a very exciting thought.’

Regardless of the exciting revolution this year, if each trend and bubble, ultimately bursts will we be looking back on modern Arabic as another Dubai fad? No one we spoke to shares this fear. ‘It’s like any new food trend that comes into the city,’ says Greg Malouf. ‘People start replicating it, and it will grow. The strong will stay, and the weak will go. If I look back at Melbourne, I never considered what I was doing as a trend, the Arabic food scene just needed a shake-up.’ ‘Everything has its wave,’ agrees Colin. ‘The Japanese wave has been and gone, but the good Japanese restaurants are still there. I think there is a market that will have a huge longevity.’

Elmar leaves us with a final inspiring thought on the future of this trend: ‘I think conceptually, anything that is based on something that has been around for a long, long time has longevity if you do it consistently well. What we do is based on 1,000-year-old culture, I think it’s got legs, definitely.’

Qbara, Wafi, Oud Metha (04 709 2500).
Omnia by Silvena opens later this month on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard.
Greg Malouf’s restaurant is currently due to open in DIFC in September.

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