Dubai is like an outdoor business lounge. A business lounge with skyscrapers and with weather that means you can’t go outside for three months of the year
Sunrise in Dubai on the 42nd floor of the Shangri-La hotel. I’m on a balcony looking around in awe as skyscrapers creep up above the fog and clouds at ground level. While some creep, other soar of course.
Straight ahead is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world which looms up into the sky; looms 2,722 feet to be precise. There’s a restaurant up there somewhere. It’s called Atmosphere but my Dubai foodie friends say the food isn’t very good. I forgot to ask if the ambiance reflected the place’s name. I can, however, mention some places I actually went to.
But first some guidelines. You need to understand some terms of reference before we get stuck in. Restaurants in Dubai – at least those that serve alcohol – are expensive.
If you want to open a restaurant and you want to offer booze then you can only do that in a hotel. So most restaurants are hotel restaurants. Which means virtually all restaurants are posh, fine dining ones.
And because they take a considerable degree of investment you’ll need a good track record to get the backing. Which is why many Dubai restaurants are sister restaurants of those in other countries. So there’s an Ivy, a Hakkasan, a Rivington Grill, ad infinitum.
Pictured above: William Sitwell's view in Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa on the right
Which is also why there are no cheeky little neighbourhood restaurants, no street food stalls and no inns, pubs, cafes, snack bars, no little foodie dives that get the heart going and no groovy, boozy pop-ups that start food revolutions.
After all, Dubai is like an outdoor business lounge. A business lounge with skyscrapers and with weather that means you can’t go outside for three months of the year. It’s a city built in the desert, so there’s not exactly a green belt with farms growing fruit and veg.
There are some local producers – fish is caught locally and the cooler environs of the UEA do support a degree of farming. And if the local restaurant scene depletes your resources you can cook and eat well at home thanks to a brilliant supermarket chain called Spinney’s that seems to stock virtually every ingredient under the sun.
So the price of dining out is high, and that’s also partly due to the fact that alcohol is very expensive. What you might splash out on vintage wine in London, you’ll shell out for a wine that’s worth a fiver.
The Desert Palm
The best thing I ate this week was a sirloin wagyu steak, imported from Australia where the beast was, I read in the menu, given beer to drink on hot days. I ate it – tender, pink perfection – on the terrace of the Desert Palm residence, where ex-pats and Emiratis come together over a shared love of polo (don’t worry the ponies live in air-conditioned stables in the summer months).
There was also an excellent starter of locally-made burrata, albeit served with a thin slice of sun-dried tomato so sharp it almost cut my mouth to pieces.
I also dined at the Dubai branch of Hakkasan, located in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers but with its own very grand, very zen, very expensive Thai spa-like entrance. The food was not as impressive as the restaurant’s design, with its carved wooden lattice screens, crafted from American red oak. I’d never dined in a marble cage, but indeed I lay in bed that night wondering how the hell you make a marble lattice.
The dishes – while delicious, apart from some dull and dry rice joined by a few beans – were not as refined. But they were classic Hakkasan: think braised abalone, dim sum platters with soft dumplings, salt and pepper squid, sweet and sour chicken with pomegranate and black truffle roasted duck.
Thai Kitchen at the Park Hyatt
But perhaps with the prettiest location was The Thai Kitchen at the Park Hyatt. Overlooking the creek, we were served delicious classics including red duck curry and tom yum soup.
Wednesday night was dark, tasty and sober – Prophet Mohammed celebrating his birthday meant that the city was enduring an enforced dry patch. Which was no great strain for me because this January every day has been like the Prophet’s birthday. Al-salaam alaykum.