Top 5 Emirati restaurants and cafés in Dubai
“Where do you go for local Emirati food in Dubai?” A question that I am asked a lot. Now, I would say head over to my grandmother’s kitchen where some of the best Emirati food is made (pronounced Emarati by the way). However, although my grandmother would love it, this doesn’t really answer the question.
And so I began to taste my way around every Emirati restaurant and café in Dubai, as well as spots serving Emirati dishes in search of the best. My journey was sometimes funny, other times horrific, but always enlightening.
It has left me much wiser and as such, here are my top 5 recommendations for eating Emirati food in Dubai – in no particular order:
- Al Fanar – I had been craving fareed all week; thin slivers of riqaaq bread drenched in a flavoursome saloona make for the perfect comfort food. We stroll into Al Fanar’s inner courtyard, charmingly named Bait Al Tawash ‘Pearl Merchant’s House.’ Though inside, the décor gives a sense of sitting in an open courtyard – a blessing after our brave, but short-lived attempt to ignore the heat and enjoy the village life theme outside. The menu, though long, is easy to read with photos and clear descriptions of the food. The complimentary harda(tahini)-slathered dates are addictive. The Fanar salad is fresh, slightly sweet and gone in a minute. The fareed laham finally arrives but while good, is far from excellent. The spices are there, just not in the right proportion and the taste of black limes is overwhelming. My husband’s biryani maleh is much better. Maleh is a fish that has been salted using a traditional method to keep it fresh and is (believe me) an acquired taste. The plates used are so authentic, that I’m pretty sure my grandmother has an identical set. The luqaimat arrive, little golden pieces of heaven, and are immediately the star of the show. Perfectly round, hot, crispy yet soft and drenched in the delicious dibbs (date syrup) – they’re the best I’ve tasted all year (sorry mum!) The strong and creamy karak complements them well. Al Fanar does a good job of giving you a glimpse of what life used to be like in the UAE. This is a great place to take visitors to. From the décor to the staff’s uniforms, a lot of thought, time and effort has gone into creating a replica of old Dubai. Open daily 9am – midnight. Canal Walk, Dubai Festival City Mall, T; +971 4 2329966, E; firstname.lastname@example.org New branch opening soon in Town Centre, Jumeirah. AED80 per person excluding drinks.
- Mama Tani – on a lazy Friday, we walk into Mama Tani – a homegrown café selling Emirati ‘khameer’. The golden round khameer is my favourite traditional breakfast dish. I say dish because to call it bread would be doing it an injustice. The setting is relaxed with calm colours complementing the café’s sarrood logo (the round sarrood, made from palm fronds, is essentially a traditional table cloth – sans the table). The menu is simple and our selection Mama Tani breakfast is served all day. For AED49 we get eggs, chebab, karak and most importantly khameer. You can choose the filling but I would stick to the classic version and slather cream cheese and honey like locals love to. The aromatic cardamom, fennel and saffron ensure the khameer tastes authentic in spite of the slightly cake-like texture. The chebab, a cross between sour dough bread and pancakes, is good. The balaleet, saffron-infused vermicelli served with eggs, is delicious. While the karak is sadly unremarkable, the camel milk hot chocolate tastes rich, creamy and different – in a good way. I’ll probably return for the golden omelette-topped balaleet, which, at AED18, is a bargain! Open daily 8.30am – 10pm, Town Centre, Jumeirah. T; +971 4 3854437, E; email@example.com AED40 per person.
- Milas – walking through a practically empty The Village at Dubai Mall on a weekday afternoon, we found Milas (a room for welcoming guests) to be surprisingly busy. Settling for a table inside, we were given a shared i-pad to peruse the long menu – the first sign of the indifferent service received throughout the meal. Attempting to carry a conversation across the way-too-big-and-shiny black table, we snacked on the complimentary cumin-sprinkled danqaw (cooked chickpeas – a local staple) and steaming Arabic bread. The traditional rocca salad was very refreshing with a light zesty dressing. The main dishes were innovative takes on the classics and beautifully spiced. The machboos laham pictured here arrived with rice fluffy, beef cooked to perfection and was chock full of flavour. The mbahar robyan vied for attention with saffron-infused rice and flavourful shrimps in a spicy cream sauce. The dessert, in comparison, fell rather flat with doughy doughnut-like luqaimat. Our visit ended with a nod to local custom, in the form of a tray of oud-inspired perfumes (incidentally one of my favourite brands) offered as a lovely hospitable gesture. The food definitely speaks for itself, offering a delicious, modern interpretation of Emirati cuisine. Open daily 9am – midnight. The Village, Dubai Mall, T; +971 4 3882313, E; firstname.lastname@example.org AED110 per person excluding drinks.
- Al Khettar – I walked into this place grumbling about its hard-to-find location and lack of parking. I walked out raving about the food. Al Khettar (meaning guests) is located in busy Deira and offers dishes from around the Gulf. An unassuming entrance led us to the second floor where we were offered a private dining room. Well, why not? You can choose to either sit at a table or on the floor where meals were traditionally served. The menu has clear descriptions, even listing the origin of each dish, along with pictures to help you choose. We opted for the falai salad, served with a light yoghurt-zattar dressing. My riqaaq with eggs and cheese was cooked just right – light yet crispy. I’ve been craving it ever since. As an aside but an important one, Riqaaq is actually great as a bread substitute if you are on a diet as it has very few calories. The excellent goat meat biryani, served in a clay pot, had my husband mesmerised as he polished it off. I snuck in a bite of the fluffy rice and tender meat and could see why. Emirati dishes at Al Khettar tasted authentic, homemade and delicious. Our dessert of luqaimat was the only hiccup of the evening. It was doughy and rather over fried. However, the fragrant khameer more than made up for it. Although traditionally a breakfast dish, once dipped in cheese and honey, it was the perfect end to our meal. Service throughout was excellent and never intrusive. I’m surprised not many people seem to know about this place. In a city where local Emirati cuisine is hard to find, this hidden gem has plenty of promise. Open daily 8am – midnight. Al Etihad Road, opposite Dubai Police headquarters. T;+9714 2964422, E; email@example.com AED60 per person excluding drinks.
- The Majlis – a location beckoning weary Dubai Mall shoppers with the promise of a delicious break, Al Majlis complements the feel of the souq with its Arabian décor and camel milk drinks menu. Many assume that camel meat is a sign of an authentic Emirati dish. It isn’t. Seafood was in fact prevalent across Emirati dishes, which is why there are many traditional ways to prepare, cook and store fish. Camels, on the other hand, were valuable and used for their milk and for travel. But I digress. The hot chocolate I asked for is unavailable, so I settled for a camelccino, aka camel milk cappuccino. Very creamy, with a slight hint of salt and hence a little bitter, it delivered the appropriate caffeine hit. Al Nassma chocolate, made by the same company, should have been served on the side, according to the ipad menu. This was nowhere to be found and upon further investigation I was told they were out of chocolate. Well, I’d hoped to buy some, I said. Oh, well in that case we have plenty. Hmmm. The chocolate, once bought was delightfully rich. The Majlis also serves Arabian afternoon tea if you are looking for something a little more substantial with your camel milk drink. Open daily 9am – midnight. The Souk Atrium, Dubai Mall, T; +971 56 2871522, E; firstname.lastname@example.org AED20 per person for drinks.
As you can see, the round-up is for restaurants where you can actually sit down and have a meal or a refreshment. There are places like the stands and pop-ups in Global Village and Al Multaqa that serve delicious luqaimat and riqaaq. For a party or a gathering, you can order from a traditional kitchen like ‘Bin Eid’ that is popular for weddings and Eid orders – more in FooDiva’s feature in The National. If you are camping, you could swing by Al Raslan in Al Awir for breakfast on the go, literally. For a cultural experience, you can head to SMCCU, which is on FooDiva’s bucket list, and have your meal served with a dash of local culture. Or else you can wait until the top-end Emirati restaurant Aseelah opens at the Radisson Deira, soon apparently – and Chef Silvena Rowe’s Emirati-influenced Omnia in Downtown Dubai just in time for Ramadan.
So, have you tasted local Emirati food? If not, and with so many options available, have I persuaded you to try it?
So who’s our anon guest reviewer Reem? “I am a proud Emirati, although spending most of my childhood in the UK makes me a bit of a Brit at heart. As much as I loved it there, I enjoyed returning to witness a cosmopolitan Dubai be born. I’m married to a wonderfully traditional man – a rare breed. We spend our free time exploring our lovely city – new spots, hidden gems and all. At twenty something (don’t ask!), I’ve realised just how much I still have to discover, experience and enjoy.”