The purple haze of Nay restaurant
Dubai; There are two vital points to get across about Nay, the new licensed Lebanese restaurant in Emirates Financial Towers (DIFC), before we can start discussing the food. The first is that Nay which calls itself a ‘Restaurant & Lounge’ permits smoking inside the restaurant; every table in the restaurant proper (as opposed to the lounge) seemed to have ashtrays. If there is a non-smoking section, it wasn’t offered to us as a seating option. Perhaps we should have insisted, but it’s realistically the sort of detail staff should immediately highlight; and besides, the smell of cigarette smoke is inescapable the moment you walk in through the front door. The second point is that the interior design is very purple – similar to the intense blue in La Porte des Indes. Yes, there’s a fair amount of white too, but purple dominates – to the extent that even a 19th-century Second Empire Paris bordello might have paused for thought. Perhaps the overwhelming use of the colour is a not-so-subtle reference to the origins of Tyrian Purple (the dye used for Roman imperial togas) in what’s now Lebanon. If so, it’s overdone. Between the smoke and the interior design… well, as Jimi Hendrix once sang, “Purple haze all around/ Don’t know if I’m coming up or down/ Am I happy or in misery?”
Thankfully, it’s not all about the smoke and the design; there’s the food too. Here, Nay does considerably better. It’s just unfortunate my photos are blurred with a purple haze, hence just one food photo here to prove my point. The menu is divided into cold mezzeh, fresh raw meat, hot mezzeh, charcoal grills, seafood, salads and desserts, and we did our best to work through as many categories as two diners could manage. Mutabel eggplant walnuts (cold mezzeh) has a lovely smokey taste from the grilled eggplant, with good sharpness coming from the accompanying pomegranate sauce. A particular highlight was the fish makanek (hot mezzeh), small fish sausages in an excellent citrus butter sauce; both myself and Mrs White Hat loved these. However, the more subtle flavours of lamb raw habra (fresh raw meat) struggled in the restaurant’s nicotine-tinged environment. The texture of the habra was lovely, but it was only with the final portions that the lamb flavour came through; the accompanying sauce was anonymous. On all of these dishes, the presentation showed a real aspiration towards offering a fine-dining version of Lebanese cuisine (albeit a very purple one).
We also ordered pickled tuna. Some nicely seasoned flatbread slices were served with what I initially thought might be a mayonnaise containing the tuna (again, the smoke was undermining some of the flavours). However, close inspection of the restaurant bill showed no sign of the the pickled tuna, and occasional communication difficulties impeded clarification. Looking at the menu again suggests that this dish was simply excluded from our order.
As with many Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, you could happily make a full meal out of the mezze – but unstinting dedication to you, FooDiva’s readers (at the possible expense of my waistline) pushed me towards the charcoal grill section of the menu. And here the veal brochettes were excellent, the outside of the meat grilled and seasoned to perfection while the inside of the veal cubes remained tender and moist. The accompanying french fries were also cooked well. The dish is served with a couple of flatbread layers containing cooked tomatoes, a skewer of grilled vegetables, and a small bowl of chopped parsley and onion. Still, at the end of the day, it’s skewers of grilled meat with chips, and the presentation didn’t quite match that of the various mezze.
For dessert I tried the dates osmalieh - khastaliah (cooked milk cream) and dates sandwiched between two thin layers of vermicelli dough. Here we were back to the fine dining presentation, and the combination of textures between the crunchy vermicelli and soft inner layers made for a fine dessert. But again some of the subtlety of flavour was lost in the cigarette haze.
So foodwise, Nay does a lot of things right. It’s also fairly good value for money, with a bill for two (notwithstanding the absence, intentional or otherwise, of the pickled tuna) coming to just AED232 for food (inclusive of 10% service charge). But there are also some problems. Service was highly erratic, veering sharply between overt hovering at the next table just in case we had a whim that needed catering to and (when we were trying to pay) total abandonment while tables and chairs were rearranged for the nightly 10:30pm – 3:00am live music. Food was sometimes removed before we’d finished, or had even had time to protest its removal. There were also two discrepencies between our order and final bill. In addition to the confusion over the pickled tuna, I ordered a glass of white wine, specifying several times that I wanted a glass of the Lebanese Chateau Ksara as the waiter repeated “so you want white?”; according to the final bill, I was served a glass of Australian chardonnay. We did not leave a tip on top of the 10% service charge included in the bill.
The restaurant was also virtually empty, the only other cover being a table of two chain smokers at a centre table. From the attention given to the rearrangement of tables towards the end of our meal, it’s possible that the atmosphere improves once the nightly entertainment kicks off at 10:30pm; but mid-evening on a weeknight, it was funereal. This is not perhaps helped by the location. There are no obvious signs at Emirates Financial Towers that a licenced Lebanese restaurant can be found inside, and only a very small sign next to the top floor lift button indicates that you’re heading in the right direction. But for a helpful porter outside the building, we would have been lost. It’s not a restaurant you’ll just casually stumble past and decide to try; you need to know it’s there.
There are likely several of you who smoke (and who don’t mind dining surrounded by curtains of Tyrian Purple) who’ll enjoy this restaurant if it manages to sort out some of the serving kinks. But non-smokers can likely find better licensed and unlicensed Lebanese options where the purple haze won’t interfere with the food (and the photos). Because if the smoke is that heavy the minute you walk in the front door on a night when there’s just a single table of two smokers…Well, I’m not sure much of the food would stand up to the smoke on a busy night; which is a shame, because there’s some good cooking taking place here. So for this non-smoker, it’s a two out of five FooDiva knife rating.
Does whether a restaurant allow smoking or not influence your dining preferences?
Until next time,
The Man in the White Hat.
So who’s our anon guest reviewer, The Man in the White Hat? He has an abiding interest in both history and food; his holidays tend to combine an intriguing local cuisine with a UNESCO World Heritage site, and he’s eaten his way across some 50 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australasia. He currently lives in Dubai, where he edits a couple of academic publications.