Can Zahira elevate Middle Eastern food to a fine dining level?

Duck bisteeya - Zahira - Greg Malouf - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaI am delighted to review a new Dubai restaurant, Zahira, on the back of FooDiva’s preview interview with Australian-Lebanese chef, Greg Malouf. The opportunity to sample a modern interpretation of Middle Eastern cuisine, something that Dubai lacks, is exciting, and could potentially be a step forward for Arabic cuisine on the world stage.

Booking via telephone is quick and easy, and we arrive to a friendly, unfussy welcome. Approaching via the stairs, rather than the lift, is more satisfying and fits with the Arabic majesty of The H Dubai’s interior. Ironically, you must walk past the elevator entrance to Play which, as FooDiva mentioned, may end up being the biggest rival for the custom required to success.

Zahira Dubai - Greg Malouf - Dubai restaurants - FoodivaThe interior is an astute mix of Middle Eastern charm and paraphernalia, but delivers a modern feel with the dimly-lit bar area and the resident DJ. We are, sadly, the only table in the restaurant for an 8.30pm booking – admittedly a Tuesday evening during the hot summer exodus of July.

The service is knowledgeable and affable, as we are welcomed by a confident-looking waiter and his manager. The conversation between them and us is easy and comfortable throughout the evening; informative and friendly but not overbearing. I would urge other Dubai restaurateurs to dine here and see how relationships should be formed between diner and waiter. My immediate query – and disappointment – about the lack of local water is met head-on by chef Greg himself as he explains that this particular New Zealand water tasted the best. That may be the case, but diners should be given the choice of a cheaper, local water.

It becomes clear that trying the nine-course ‘art of feasting’ tasting menu is the best and more affordable way to sample the food, whilst Greg is on hand to tweak dishes to our desires and needs. Red meat and unpasteurised cheese are replaced to suit the dietary needs of my pregnant wife and we end up with a menu that feels personal to us, but still reflecting Greg’s culinary vision. The food arrives in three stages; four starters, three mains, and two desserts. The wine list is incredible and contains the best of Lebanon and Syria, as well as wines produced under their own label.

As for the food, I just cannot fault it. Memories of my recent trips to Jordan, Egypt and Oman come flooding back as I get a taste of the Middle East in each dish. This is complemented by delightful textures and flavour combinations that might not be to the satisfaction of the purist, but deliver all of the herbs, spices and flavour profiles that I expect. The quality of the cooking is unfussy but careful; traditional but inventive, and most of all, it is downright enjoyable.

Chermoula Gulf prawns - Zahira - Dubai restaurants - FooDivaStarters include a silky hummus bi tahini that is best eaten with mini parcels of bread; and tempura fresh za’atar leaves with spicy fried whitebait that is embellished further by the yoghurt dip. The French quail schnitzel is pan-fried using kunafeh crumbs, served with a succulent purslane salad and tastes as Austrian as one might expect, but the salad and shredded pastry provide an Arabic semblance. My favourite dish of the night completes the starters – split giant Gulf prawns – marinated in a green Moroccan chermoula that is so good, I find myself scraping every last vestige from inside the shells and obtaining the recipe from the chef.

I am almost full already and a break is much-needed. Greg did say to eat slowly and he is not wrong, making this sharing menu the ideal meal for a sociable gathering over a few hours. The mains arrive together and are expertly divided by our waiter, allowing him to showcase his silver-service skills. Nine-hour lamb shoulder ouzi is hidden by the saj bread but the flavours and melt-in-your-mouth textures remind me of a dry version of mansaf, as served on Rainbow Street in Amman. Duck bisteeya (hero photo top right) is an opulent take on a traditional Moroccan bisteeya pastry – typically filled with chicken or pigeon – and the sweet spices are a huge hit for my palate. The third main is not from the menu; a sea bream risotto that is buried under a mountain of fried onions and coriander leaves. The risotto is as good as I have ever eaten, and the spicing is clever enough to bring out the fishy taste of the bream.

If I am full after the starters, I am now bursting and ask for a 45-minute break before the desserts. Another table has arrived at this point and we discuss the eerie atmosphere with so many vacant tables and a lonely DJ. However, the music and the service provide us with our own satisfying mini-atmosphere around the table.

For dessert, knife and fork ice cream with chocolate uses subtle layers of pastry and leatherwood honey truffles to make a coherent dish that leaves you wanting more. A strawberry Pavlova is the perfect, light finish to the meal and includes a smooth orange blossom labneh in the meringue. Be prepared to compete with your dining companion to mop up the peach and strawberry salad juices.

I have saved the best about Zahira until the end; the price point. The quality, quantity and inventiveness of the food is achieved for an affordable AED260 per person. Couple this with attentive friendly service, a central location and an on-point interior, Zahira provides outstanding value for money, by Dubai standards. The only thing missing is that elusive atmosphere. Once summer is over, I hope patrons will fill the restaurant and bar, whilst the team maintains the excellent service and food. The missing ambience could well be the final piece of this culinary puzzle. Until then, here’s to a 4 out of 5 FooDiva knife rating.

I very much look forward to hearing how the Arab community interprets Zahira’s cuisine. Are you a traditionalist when it comes to Middle Eastern food, or do you welcome modernisation and experimentation?

Matt Broderick.

Who is guest reviewer Matt? A newly-married author and teacher with an obsession for French wine and fine dining, he loves nothing more than trying new restaurants and dishes with his wife and friends. Travel plans are always made around food and he can remember what he was doing on any given day by recalling the meal that he ate. His favourite chefs are Michel Roux Jr. and Nathan Outlaw.

FooDiva Rating: Knife Rating: 4
  • The H Dubai, Mezzanine level, Sheikh Zayed
  • +971 4 5018606
  • Modern Middle Eastern
  • Yes
  • AED 260 per person without alcohol
  • Open daily 6pm – 2am
  • http://www.zahira.ae/
  • Posted under
    Dubai, Hotels, Lebanese, Licensed, Location, Middle Eastern, Restaurant Reviews, Restaurants, Sheikh Zayed
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2 Responses to “Can Zahira elevate Middle Eastern food to a fine dining level?”

  1. JayEim August 5, 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Pus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

    Right, so here we have yet another risible modern interpretation of Middle Eastern cuisine with servings of: French quail schnitzel – split giant Gulf prawns marinated in a green Moroccan chermoula – Ouzi – sea bream risotto and a strawberry Pavlova.
    I mean seriously where is the modern interpretation? Replacing duck meat instead of pigeon in the Pastilla?

    It is a done and dusted restaurant and as you are rightly saying, the litmus test is the filling of the tables.

    Unfortunately, you will not see me there as I do not like to laugh while eating!

    As for the 4 FoodDiva knives, I really like your sense of humour.

    • Matt Broderick August 6, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      Thank you for commenting, Jayeim. It is almost impossible to justify every choice of ingredient in a review but I think Zahira is trying to make subtle additions to tasty, traditional Arabic food. I was surprised at the addition of a German/Austrian schnitzel but with an open mind, I rather enjoyed it as the accompanying salad provided the Arabic flavours.

      Obviously, not every twist can please everyone, nor will they all work; but as a dining experience it was an enjoyable occasion and the cookery skill was without question (hence the 4 stars).

      If the rating was directly linked to how Arabic it was, or whether it would please every person, then maybe 4 stars would be a lot. However, throughout the meal, it was possible to get a ‘taste of the Middle East’ in every dish, albeit with some surprising, or subtle, additions and presentations.

      Finally, no restaurant can please everyone – especially in a multicultural hub like Dubai – but I think Zahira will please most and appears to have been very popular with many Arabs in recent weeks.

      Matt

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