A warm welcome at Naya
My expectations for Naya, the new Indian restaurant in Dubai at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, weren’t necessarily high. I’d read the launch PR from March, I’d skimmed through the online menu, and wasn’t wholly convinced that ‘homemade, rustic north Indian fare in a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere’ with a menu ‘inspired by authentic recipes collected over the years from [head chef Pravish Shetty’s] friends and family in India’ was going to offer a particularly interesting evening. ‘Homemade’ and ‘rustic’ are the sort of adjectives more usually associated with Karama’s Indian restaurants, and I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of a high-end hotel restaurant apparently attempting to compete with the Karama scene’s rather more affordable price points. The presence on the Naya menu of the Anglo-Bengali chicken tikka masala – a culinary Frankenstein’s monster inexplicably often described as ‘Britain’s favourite dish’ – didn’t suggest a focus on north Indian authenticity, either. But then life’s full of pleasant surprises, and there’s always the possibility that Naya could be one of them.
The night started on a positive note with a complimentary basket of poppadums with a trio of chutneys. But these aren’t depressing Anglo-Indian poppadums, but rather three different styles of small and tasty crisp discs with excellent savoury mango, coriander, and tomato chutneys. It’s a well-executed intro that’s a good sign of things to come. Blissfully – with all due thanks to the restaurant gods – there’s no sign of the sharing concept plague on the menu. There’s a small footnote encouraging diners to share if they want to, but otherwise the menu is a fairly traditional collection of starters, mains, grills, biryanis, and various accompaniments. Food was served in traditional western style, with starters served distinctly from mains and accompaniments, and the menu brought out again for dessert. Dishes marked as ‘Naya signature’ were created specifically for the restaurant, while those marked ‘chef’s pick’ are ostensibly the most popular dishes – though how they’ve identified the latter in a restaurant that’s only been open a month remains a mystery.
The starters were both excellent. Batter-fried fish is an easy dish to get wrong, but the batter on the caraway-marinated Amritsari fish was light and crispy, and the fish perfectly cooked. The dish also had some strong, but not overbearing, chilli kick. The dahi puri chaat were a textural delight – the crispy wheat puffs, seasoned yoghurt, and scattering of pomegranate seeds all working well together. A main of ‘Naya’ lamb chops masala was a real highlight, with a thick and richly spiced Punjabi-style yoghurt sauce full of well-balanced spices. If I could quibble, it’s that the chargrilled chops were just very slightly dry, but I found myself focusing far more on the enthusiasm with which I was mopping up the sauce. The mutton sheekh kebab weren’t nearly as spicy as the menu suggested, but were really lifted by a dash of lemon juice, and so finely minced that they just dissolved away in the mouth. Sides were a dahi kachumber yoghurt salad with chopped tomato, onion and cucumber, which offered a welcome refreshing sharpness to the rich lamb chop sauce, some well-executed tadka dal (lentils with herbs and caramelised garlic), and a cheese naan and spicy masala naan. The two breads were well-cooked and perfect for scooping up the lamb chop sauce, yoghurt salad, and dal. However, it might have been a mistake to order the masala naan with the lamb chops masala – the spice blends, however well-executed, were too similar for the bread to stand out.
While totally full by this point, my usual consideration for FooDiva readers forced me onwards towards the dessert menu. Mrs White Hat restrained herself to a couple of scoops of blueberry kheer kulfi (Indian ice cream), but I forced myself to have a kulfi khalooda, a combination of kulfi, noodles, nuts, rose water and (I think) tapioca pearls. Two spoonfuls in, and it looked a mess, but it was shockingly, decadently good. The drinks list is well-priced for Dubai, includes a decent range by the glass, and even includes some Indian wines – a nice touch, though I can’t vouch for whether they’re any good since I stuck to the flavoured iced teas for the evening.
The South Asian staff are absolutely excellent, so warmly welcoming, charming, and clearly well-trained that we easily forgave them the very occasional slip towards over-solicitousness. Even paying the bill – which in many Dubai restaurants is the moment staff decide you’ve suddenly become invisible – was dealt with quickly and efficiently. Every member of staff we passed on the way out warmly thanked us, and we left feeling like genuinely welcome guests. With service so often the weak point of Dubai restaurants, it’s worth stressing that this is one of Naya’s strengths. Pricing is also reasonably attractive for this end of the market, with food costing AED480 for two (excluding the 20% discount Jumeirah currently offers to Mastercard users). Certainly we waddled away from the hotel happily stuffed from a well-portioned meal.
The broader atmosphere, though is the restaurant’s weak point. Restaurant décor somehow manages to be simultaneously contemporary, gilded, and slightly nondescript, with an oddly Andalusian feel to the columns and grilles. On a Friday night, the inside space was at most a third full, and Naya simply didn’t have enough covers to build much of a buzz. Several diners were sitting outside, and once it warms up and everyone prefers to sit inside, it might do better. Still, the space currently feels a little ambitious. A table of Sikhs (whose presence suggested the kitchen had at least some successful nods to Punjabi authenticity) and the Slav-Australian Mrs White Hat aside, almost all of the diners were British families with children – likely tourists staying at the resort. There’s a very real place for family-friendly licensed restaurants that welcome all ages, but it does mean that Naya is never going to be at the bleeding edge of dining trends.
But then, does it necessarily need to? Naya knows what it’s doing, and it does it well. In a city where new restaurants are often falling over each other to embrace the latest concept trends – and not necessarily executing them well – there’s surely space for a solid, well-run, and welcoming restaurant that focuses on getting the food and service right. The restaurant’s own decision to market their food as ‘homemade’ and ‘rustic’ arguably does both chef Shetty and the restaurant a serious disservice when it comes to managing expectations. There’s some real skill on show in that kitchen, and the staff are a delight. If they can work out how to build more of an atmosphere – which is why I’m giving the restaurant three and a half FooDiva knives out of five (rather than four) – then Naya can establish itself as a real contender at the more ambitious end of Dubai’s Indian restaurant scene.
Do you think there’s space for high-end Indian food in Dubai’s crowded Indian restaurant scene? What’s some of the best service you’ve enjoyed in a Dubai restaurant?
The Man in the White Hat.
So who’s FooDiva’s 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.