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Delicious Dubai: The best dishes to devour when you next visit the UAE

From a walking tour around the famous souk to a neighbourhood bistro that was voted the best restaurant in the Middle East and Africa, Amira Arasteh goes off the beaten track in Dubai to find a gastronomic scene that’s very much alive and thriving

Sunday 20 August 2023 06:30 BST
Dubai is known for luring in big name chefs, but there’s plenty of smaller eateries worth a visit
Dubai is known for luring in big name chefs, but there’s plenty of smaller eateries worth a visit (Getty)

My first visit to Dubai in 2016, while fantastic, left me thinking that perhaps the six-hour flight was a little excessive for a spot of sunshine (what with mainland Europe on our doorstep). But then, excess is sort of the whole point of Dubai.

I’d always had my eye on the food scene; a country that affluent can afford to bring over big name chefs to open their new restaurants in the emirate, as well as franchising already popular eateries.

But while we all know that Sushi Samba, Zuma and LPM have prime real estate in Dubai (and for good reason), I was keen to explore restaurants that my hometown of London didn’t already offer. Onto another six-hour flight I hopped with a plan to dine at spots I’d missed the first time around, but that have been quietly making their mark on the Dubai food scene.

From a walking tour of some seriously tasty snacks in the famous souk to the restaurant that secured first place in the 50 Best Restaurants in the Middle East and North Africa list this year, I discovered a culinary world just off the beaten track of all the glitz and glamour.

I’m not saying shy away from sushi with a panoramic view of the Palm – when in Rome, after all – but should you be keen to delve a little deeper into Dubai’s gastronomy scene, here are several spots that should definitely be on your foodie hit list.


(Amira Arasteh)

Located in Dubai’s DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre), BOCA was just awarded a green star in this year’s Michelin ceremony for its work towards sustainable dining. Serving dishes such as kingfish ceviche with sweet potato hummus, tomato and strawberry gazpacho and chicken with roasted spiced potatoes and padron peppers, it’s clear that taste, the environment and presentation are all key elements of a meal at this contemporary restaurant.

Running on 100 per cent renewable energy, BOCA aims to have as little waste as possible and put locally sourced ingredients to good use – one dish comprises of aged beetroot and khansoor (a desert plant that is, in this case, grown onsite). A home-grown concept, this restaurant consistently shows how much the UAE has to offer, noting the Hajar mountains in the north as biologically rich habitats and acknowledging the organic and traditional farms that are situated in the central region. As well as every mouthful being a delight and the decor of the restaurant emulating its green fingers, the leadership team at BOCA is entirely made up of women, with executive chef Patricia Roig heading up the team in the kitchen. We could certainly use more restaurants with this kind of ethos here in the UK.

BOCA, Gate Village 6, DIFC, Dubai

Frying Pan Adventures’ Snack Tour

(Amira Arasteh)

When it comes to travelling, a tour from the locals is a great way to avoid tourist traps and discover the true nature of a place. Well, thanks to Frying Pan Adventures, you can do just that. Proving that Dubai’s food scene isn’t limited to fine dining and rooftop views, founding sisters Arva and Farida Ahmed have you sorted when it comes to embarking on a culinary discovery of Dubai. Hosting a number of different food tours across the emirate, we headed to the spice souk to discover the best street food the city has to offer.

Awash with unassuming cafes and holes in the wall, hiding tandoor ovens of dreams, you’ll soon be feasting upon dishes such as paratha filled with omelette, cream cheese, chilli-flavoured crisps (known as chips Oman) – all slathered with hot sauce and washed down with a fragrant cup of chai. After watching the masters at work cooking bread, tear apart freshly-baked flatbread, filled with cream cheese and zaatar (a match made in heaven) and if you’re craving something sweet, there’s a trip to cool down with some Persian faloodeh – vermicelli noodles in granita with rose syrup and fresh lime juice.

Frying Pan Adventures, Al Ras, Dubai

Al Ustad Special Kebab

(Amira Arasteh)

One of the city’s most popular spots happens to be this delicious yet affordable Persian kebab restaurant. Al Ustad is known as a bit of a hidden gem, found just past the textile souk. Attracting both locals and tourists, you can spot the chefs grilling the various kebabs from the outside of the restaurant, leaving your mouth watering as you enter. This canteen-style eatery is full of character – with the walls adorned with countless photos of diners across its four decades of opening. Serving up koobideh (minced lamb), joojeh (saffron-marinated chicken) and barg (lamb fillet), the pièce de résistance at this restaurant is the kebab khas, with juicy chunks of grilled lamb or chicken marinated in yoghurt before being grilled.

Al Ustad, Metro Station, Al Mussallah Rd, Al Hamriya, Dubai

Orfali Bros Bistro Restaurant

(Amira Arasteh)

Never has a restaurant been easier to write about. Brothers (in case you couldn’t guess) Mohammad, Wassim and Omar have curated this delectable menu which pays homage to their roots and experiences in food, travel, art and culture. The neighbourhood eatery that everyone wishes was closer to home, Orfali was just voted the best restaurant in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) 2023, acknowledging its unique dining experience where every dish tells its own story. The three immigrant chef brothers from Syria all work together, whether its across the menu, on the pastry dishes (for which stomach space should certainly be left) or overseeing the running of the restaurant itself.

With Mohammed a veteran TV cook and restaurant chef in the Middle East and Wassim and Omar classic pâtissiers, your mouth should already be watering because everything is just so divine at Orfali. From a burnt leek and truffle pide of dreams, drizzled with brown miso butter and sprinkled with hazelnuts, stracciatella and chives to tuna salsa roja with fermented tomato, seaweed, aji recoto, garlic and onions, everything that came out of this kitchen was phenomenal. Proving the folks voting at MENA know their stuff, every bite was one of happiness, with other notable dishes including the pomelo salad with calamansi nam jim, wagyu gyoza with garlic yoghurt and sujuk oil and the Orfali bayildi: aubergine with makdous muhammara, tarator, walnut, verjuice and nasturtium. Even the bitesize corn bomb, with 36 month-aged parmesan, and the umami eclair (so aptly named), consisting of porcini emulsion, mushroom marmite, cacao nibs, fermented quince glaze and beef prosciutto, were enough to seal the meal as a special one – before the rest of the larger dishes were even ordered.

If you dine at Orfali and your dinner disappoints you, I’ll fly to Dubai myself and finish your meal as no morsel deserves to go uneaten. Not only going down as one my favourite restaurants in Dubai, but I wish the terrific trio would open up shop in London. I’d definitely be a regular.

Orfali Bros Bistro, D92, Jumeirah 1, Dubai

Time Out Market

(Amira Arasteh)

Even discerning gourmet travellers have cravings. While certainly not short of a visitor or two (both tourists and locals), the Time Out Market located downtown is the perfect place to satisfy them. While Dubai is celebrated as a city that champions worldwide cuisine (potentially even more than it’s own, with emirati food taking inspiration from its neighbouring countries), there’s definitely a street food stall or two to explore inside.

Boasting a glow-up to most markets we visit, there’s 17 food concepts to feast upon inside this grand food court. Obviously not all the dishes could be sampled – no matter how much my grumbling stomach and salivating mouth wished this was possible – but a strong recommendation of mine would be the soft shell crab bao, combined with the delicious (if a little odd in pairing) side of crispy brussels sprouts from BB Social, as well as however many scoops of liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream from Scoopi your stomach can manage. Drama is the theme here – with gold leaf garnishes and activated charcoal just some of the theatrics this place has on show.

Time Out Market, Level 3, Souk Al Bahar, Downtown, Dubai

Al Khayma Heritage Restaurant

(Amira Arasteh)

Whenever I participate in a cooking class, that line from Hitch (which, in the grand scheme of the plot is not an all-important line to remember, but here we are) where Eva Mendes’s boss exclaims that it’s an interesting concept, cooking one’s own food in a restaurant, comes to mind. His wife firmly tells him to be quiet and after cooking my own impressive chicken machboos (okay, I had a lot of guidance), I quite agree. First things first, my stomach was nicely lined before I embarked on my task, as I ate (a healthy amount) of regag bread – trying all the toppings (it’s only fair). From a delicious cream cheese that bubbled as it cooked in front of us to chips Oman, egg and fish sauce (separately or all together), regag is a popular Emirati snack, with it being commonly made and eaten among local households and snack shops.

Moving onto the main event: the machboos, we were in safe hands with Al Khayma’s chef guiding us through the process in its rooftop kitchen. Although bearing similarities to (and therefore thought to originate or take large inspiration from) kabsa – a Saudi Arabian chicken and rice dish – machboos is now widely considered to be the national dish of the UAE. However it is a dish that has long been cooked across various Arab cultures, with Kuawaitis back in the 1950s learning to cook with Indian spices when trading pearls with India. Made up of chicken, rice and spices including turmeric, cardamom, cloves, cinammon and star anise, plus a dried cooking lime. We then topped our aromatic masterpiece with golden, lightly fried raisins, crispy onions and fresh parsley – before promptly tucking into what was most certainly a treat.

Al Khayma, Historical Neighbourhood, 79 Al Mussallah Rd, Al Fahidi, Dubai


(Amira Arasteh)

Another well-timed reservation was the one at Avatara. Having just obtained its first Michelin star in the 2023 ceremony, we dined at Dubai’s first and only all-vegetarian fine dining restaurant. The experience, with chef Rahul Rana at the helm, consists of a 16-course – yes, you read that correctly – tasting menu which, trust me, won’t have you missing meat. Start off with naivedhya (a holy offering) of makan malai, popping mishri and panchamrita. This sweet snack is the food offered to a deity as worship during prayer rituals.

I won’t go through the entire 16 courses with you but everything from the cucumber granita and beetroot sorbet in buttermilk to the horse gram curry with ragi bhatura (a North Indian deep fried bread) and jakhiya aloo (pahadi spiced potatoes) were truly excellent. Guests are encouraged to keep their menus with them, as beside each dish is not only a short description but also the story behind each one or a notable fact about the ingredients used. While some may already know that tomatoes are a potent antioxidant and how rich they are in vitamins A, C and E, I personally would never have guessed that horse gram has proven effective as a natural kidney stone treatment. An educative meal, as well as a delicious one.

Avatara, Second Floor, Voco Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Rd, Dubai

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