by Lara Brunt, The Telegraph, March 24, 2017
It was the fourth most popular travel destination in the world last year, outperforming New York, Tokyo and Rome. Yet, unlike its rivals, Dubai ’s food scene has largely flown under the international radar.
But with Michelin tipped to launch a guide to the Gulf emirate in the near future, that could soon change. Michael Ellis, international director of Michelin Guides, told last year’s Global Restaurant Investment Forum in Dubai that it is “only a matter of time” before the first sought-after stars are awarded to restaurants in the city.
Few people think of the famously over-the-top city as a true gastronomic hub – surely it’s all gold leaf lattes and decadent buffet brunches? “I think there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to Dubai,” says Zoe Bowker, fine-dining food blogger and Official World's 50 Best Restaurants Tastemaker.
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“Dubai is a very young city, so we're still catching up to the world's cosmopolitan capitals. We've achieved so much as a city and grown at such a rapid pace, however, that I don't think it will take too long until we have a scene to rival the world's best gastronomic destinations. We've currently got two restaurants [Zuma Dubai and La Petite Maison] on the World's Top 100 Restaurants list.”
Home to more than 200 nationalities, Dubai dishes up a veritable smorgasbord of international cuisine to suit all budgets. “Given our hugely diverse multicultural mix you can find anything, from amazingly affordable ethnic options right up to fine-dining in some of the world's most recognisable landmarks,” says Bowker.
There is increasing competition among Dubai’s restaurants too, with an average of four new eateries opening a day, according to figures from Dubai Municipality. “We have an absolutely huge number of restaurants – estimates range from 9,000 to 16,000 – for our population of only 2.5 million residents,” adds Bowker. “It’s a competitive scene where everyone is trying to come up with the next big thing.”
The city has also slowly started to shift its reliance on celebrity chef imports and international restaurant chains. “We're starting to see more chef-led establishments where it's truly about their passion and inspiration, such as The Experience by Reif Othman and Carnival by Tresind. These restaurants are serving up creative food that competes on a global level,” says Bowker. “Chefs are also making an increased effort to source organic and local ingredients.”
Samantha Wood, founder of the UAE-based restaurant review website foodiva.net, agrees that Dubai’s restaurant scene is maturing, but says it still has a long way to go.
“I would like to see more high-end licensed establishments that are homegrown and serve modern interpretations of cuisine from the Arab world. That will really demonstrate a mature dining scene and one that is worthy of a Michelin Guide,” Wood says.
With Middle Eastern food playing second fiddle to European cuisine, Yannick Alléno, a six-star Michelin chef and chef patron at STAY by Yannick Alléno at Dubai’s One&Only The Palm hotel, believes it will take time for local cuisine to develop its own identity.
“Dubai has become the hub of the world. I think it will have an amazing development with its food like we had in Europe, especially in France. Of course, we start to feel the energy of what’s happening here [in Dubai] but I don’t know if we can feel the impact for centuries,” Alléno says.
So is Dubai ready for a Michelin Guide?
“I think Dubai now could accept a Michelin Guide because the quality is very high,” says Alléno. “The quality [at my restaurant in Dubai] is outstanding and I would challenge my team and say ‘I want three stars more’.”
Bowker believes Dubai still has some work to do, especially when it comes to service. “The best thing Michelin will bring is another way for our restaurants to benchmark themselves, both locally and internationally. That being said, there are definitely restaurants that I think would receive stars right now,” she says.
Wood, however, is not convinced the city is quite ready. “As much as I would love to see Michelin here, I just don’t think Dubai has enough of a critical mass of restaurants that would make the Michelin-standard cut,” she says. “I think for Michelin to come here, they need to see more homegrown concepts.”
“We need infrastructure here to support budding entrepreneurs to open their own restaurant concepts,” she adds. “Currently, it’s very prohibitive in terms of cost and red tape.”
Which of Dubai's restaurants could sway the Michelin judges?
Zoe Bowker’s top five picks
The Experience by Reif Othman – a new concept that seats just 12 diners with a different menu for each service
Play – also helmed by ex-Zuma chef Reif Othman and serving ‘Mediterrasian’ cuisine
The Artisan by Enoteca Pinchiorri – a local outpost of Florence's famous three Michelin-starred Italian restaurant
STAY by Yannick Alléno – modern French fine-dining from the six-star Michelin chef
Tresind – a homegrown, modern Indian fine diner led by chef Himanshu Saini
Samantha Wood’s top five picks
Boca – a homegrown Spanish-meets-Mediterranean concept with an Italian chef
Rüya – Turkish restaurant led by Colin Clague (ex-Jean Georges, Zuma and Qbara)
TOMO – authentic Japanese cuisine from chef Chitoshi Takahashi
Social by Heinz Beck - Italian fare from the German chef of three Michelin-starred La Pergola fame
The Experience by Reif Othman (see above)