Jason Atherton has a secret (but not so guilty) pleasure. During his frequent trips to Dubai, it turns out, this world-class British chef likes nothing better than a shawarma. Especially into, or on the way out of, one of the city’s most infamous party spots.
Between the 12 textures of foie gras and truffle snow served up by the world’s most complex restaurants, it is a common assumption that Michelin star-awarded chefs (and their critics) must live on a diet of three-star food. Not true, obviously. We’ve never forgotten the day that multi-awarded British chef Jeff Galvin told us he likes nothing better than microwaving a beef sausage roll after a hard day at work. Having lived with chefs with a penchant for supermarket rotisserie chicken, we can confirm that Galvin is not alone.
If anything, a life that revolves around fine food gives some an unquenchable appreciation for the simpler things in life. Not necessarily bad food, but simple, humble and authentic creations with a crowd-pleasing soul. So when Jason Atherton and Tristin Farmer (chef patron at Marina Social) outed themselves as Rock Bottom’s best customers for a late-night shawarma, we felt a road trip coming on, with a chance to sample and celebrate Dubai’s street food scene on the way.
Cramming ourselves in to the Time Out Dubai Toyota Yaris, chefs Atherton and Farmer follow us on a four-stop crawl around Dubai’s best-known haunts for shawarma, manakish and more. Rock Bottom’s shawarmas are not necessarily the best in the city, Atherton and Farmer joke. “But there is a certain time of night when they taste really good,” laughs Atherton. “Plus, you can have one on the way in, and the way out of the club.”
Atherton is, of course, no stranger to Dubai, having moved here in 2000 to launch Gordon Ramsay’s Verre. Aside from Rock Bottom, which we suspect, from the way he speaks, that he will always be nostalgic about, Atherton also talks of frequenting shawarma spots along Al Rigga Road, at the back of the Hilton Dubai Deira Creek, where Ramsay’s old restaurant once stood. Back in his Verre days, Deira and Bur Dubai were his stomping ground, and we later learn that he still knows the streets like the back of his hand. Atherton and Farmer, however, who has come to Dubai in its new era of shiny sea-facing skyscrapers in Dubai Marina, jokes that he barely gets five minutes to leave Marina Social or the area in which it’s located.
Cruising down Al Wasl Road, we learn that it was at Verre that Atherton met his wife Irha, who was working front of house in the restaurant at the time. Since then, Irha Atherton has been an integral part of the chef’s growing restaurant empire. This brief interlude, however, is the most Atherton speaks about himself during our trip. His conversation (and his mind) are very much focused on his work. Unassuming and with a dry sense of humour, initially it seems as though he is not the most talkative of road trip companions. He’s sitting in the back seat with his notebook open on his lap. Later it transpires that in every spare second he gets – while we navigate with the driver or settle the bill for a round of snacks – Atherton is busy firing out work-related emails on his phone, pausing and lifting his head to pick up conservations on the decline of fine dining or Irha’s (who is from the Philippines) favourite Pinoy dining spots.
We pull up at our first stop of the day, Antar on Al Wasl Road. Proving that Farmer is not exaggerating about the hours he spends inside Marina Social, as we get out of the car, he seems genuinely surprised at how hot the sun still is in the afternoon. “I haven’t really been out at this time of day,” he laughs. The Antar waiter arrives at the car window with the menus, and as quickly as we get everyone’s hopes up at their first-ever taste of hassan matar, the waiter dashes them with the words “no shawarma yet”. In true Dubai style, each time we ask what time we can come back, the answer is ever-so-slightly different. Cutting our losses, we plump for a UAE favourite we suspect neither chef has sampled before: the egg paratha. Glancing over the menu, the unfamiliar chickoo fruit catches Atherton’s eye, and we order a chickoo drink, too.
The chickoo is the only item of the day the chefs say they just can’t score. Stacked with so much dairy and sugar, Atherton and Farmer are disappointed that they can’t taste the fruit itself. “The guy said chickoo tastes like passion fruit, but it is so sweet, I didn’t get any of that passion fruit sourness. It just tastes like banana milkshake,” Atherton says. By the time we turn to ask him for a taste, the juice is already gone and in the bin. The paratha gets better reactions, especially the bread itself. From the outset, Farmer sets himself up for a reputation as the critic of the day, with Atherton teasing him for being a harsh marker.
Onwards to Al Reef Lebanese Bakery, we are eager to have the chefs try one of Dubai’s most famous places for manakish. Inside the shop, a heavily iced cake with a Barbie doll sticking out of the top catches Atherton’s eye, and he jokes that he should bring it home for his young daughters. We order a mix of classic manakish, including akkawi cheese, zaatar and lahm bi ajin (which gets a rough ride). “It’s just boiled meat. I can’t get excited by that,” quips Atherton. “It’s like boiled doner kebab,” chimes in Farmer. “They could have put some amazing pulled lamb with cheese and onions on top.” We laugh at his chef’s upgrade of a simple breakfast classic, as he adds, “That would be a great food truck idea.”
The akkawi cheese is the winner of the three varieties. As Farmer compares it to cheese on toast, this sparks a nostalgic memory of working in the kitchen of a fairly cost-conscious chef in London, where staff were fed cheese on toast every day before service.
On the subject of restaurant costs, is Atherton surprised at how cheaply these venues can sell each sandwich or shawarma, charging much less than Dhs10 per item? Yes, he says, adding that however much they sell, they still need to pay staff wages. It’s not just a problem for budget eateries, though. Fine dining, he tells us with conviction, is dying the world over. It is an event, an experience, where you have to concentrate on the food itself. “People don’t want that anymore, they want to go out and just have fun. That is the idea behind the Social restaurant brand.” But surely world-renowned names of fine dining will still draw curious diners in? Atherton quickly counters that the likes of René Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal have not made a single penny out of their three-star restaurants. Those who have made money, he says, have not done so through the three-Michelin-star glory project, but by “selling their soul” with endorsements. “You won’t catch me doing that.” So no Atherton branded ketchup, ever? we joke. “No way,” he states firmly.
During shawarma twilight time in Jumeirah, we head into Atherton’s own former manor to visit his favourite Bur Dubai spot for the sandwich. Directing us down to Old Dubai from memory and with ease, he is clearly delighted to see Lebanese Village on Al Mankhool Road still standing. “I used to live just around the corner, and I’d come here a couple of times a week, which is quite a lot for anyone working in a restaurant.” He orders, and we take a seat in the sunshine outside, with the heat of the day now closer to Farmer’s “memory” of life outside the restaurant. “It’s exactly the same,” Atherton tells us, as we all tuck in. “It’s like 11 years didn’t happen. The buildings around here have sprung up and the restaurant has a terrace now, but the flavours are exactly the same.” As the bill comes, Atherton quips to the waiter, “It’s on Time Out,” and passes it to us.
Moving on to a Satwa shawarma stalwart, Al Mallah on 2nd December Street, the terrace is already packed. The scent of meat and smoke fills the air and Atherton dubs it the most atmospheric place of the day. Much to our delight, he adds that the filling is tastier than his own nostalgia spot Lebanese Village. Tristin “harsh marker” Farmer, however, drops the lauded Al Mallah down a point and a half for the bread.
Surprisingly spritely after the carb marathon today, we bid Atherton adieu in the car park of The Dubai Mall. He disappears off to meet his wife and buy her a birthday present. He leaves Farmer and Time Out Dubai to fight it out over Al Mallah’s bread. Farmer is still alive and well.
Jason Atherton and Tristin Farmer are the chefs behind Marina Social. InterContinental Dubai Marina, JBR (04 446 666404 446 6664).
Judge Jason and co
Chefs Jason Atherton, Tristin Farmer and Time Out, each give their verdict on Dubai’s street food
Egg paratha at Antar
Al Wasl Road, next to J3 Mall, opposite Choithrams (800 26827).
Jason Atherton: 3/5
“I like the bread. It’s great they are making the bread on site. But they are using shop-bought mayo. It’d like some spice and some natural sauce.”
Tristin Farmer: 2/5
“The bread is interesting, like puff pastry. The rest of it is uninteresting.”
Time Out Dubai: 3/5
“The paratha has an incredible texture, alternately chewy and flaky and spiralled like a cobweb.”
Akkawi cheese manakish at Al Reef Lebanese Bakery
Al Wasl Road, opposite Al Wasl Square (04 394 520004 394 5200).
Jason Atherton: 4/5
“The cheese is definitely the best of the three we tried. It’s like a cheese pizza.”
Tristin Farmer: 4/5
“It’s like cheese on toast, which I like. It’s nostalgic.”
Time Out Dubai: 4/5
“It has a generous quantity of molten akkawi cheese, with a tangy, salty edge. The base is good, but not the best in town.”
Shawarma at Lebanese Village
Al Mankhool Road, near Ramada Hotel, Bur Dubai (04 352 252204 352 2522).
Jason Atherton: 5/5
“Tasty bread, perfect size and the right level of spice when asked to make it spicy.”
Tristin Farmer: 5/5
“The chicken is beautiful, slightly charred and you can really taste the garlic.”
Time Out Dubai: 3/5
“Big, meaty, satisfying. But there are heavy-handed dollops of garlic dressing and the bread is too doughy.”
Shawarma at Al Mallah
2nd December Street, Satwa (04 398 472304 398 4723).
Jason Atherton: 5/5
“The set-up is fantastic, the filling is more moist than Lebanese Village, but the bread is a bit dry.”
Tristin Farmer: 3.5/5
“Good, but the bread is dry. I prefer the Lebanese Village shawarma.”
Time Out Dubai: 5/5
“Among the best shawarmas in the emirate. Balanced garlic flavour, perfectly moist and flavoursome chicken and crisp, toasted bread.”