The gourmet food scene in the UAE is taking on the likes of Paris, New York and London

Chefs and owners pose for picture on the stage during a ceremony revealing the 2022 selection of the Michelin Guide Dubai, the first-ever edition in the United Arab Emirates, on June 21, 2022.
Giuseppe Cacace | Afp | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — While the economic outlook for much of the world is predicted to be rocky over 2023, in the Gulf there’s a buoyant mood.

This is partly after the lucrative soccer frenzy in Qatar, but also because the region’s tourism sector has never had it so good.

This is especially true for the United Arab Emirates, with the country’s economy growing by more than 6% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

For the UAE hospitality sector there’s a lot on the table — literally, if the rising number of posh new fine dining restaurants is anything to go by. Licensed eateries in the country must be part of a hotel — with a few exceptions in the finance district of DIFC — so this is a vital business tie-in.

And as ever in this part of the world, the competition to be the most extravagant and lauded is already high — as illustrated by the competitive spirit on display in the UAE’s inaugural Michelin Guide Dubai awards a few months back.

The capital Abu Dhabi saw three of its restaurants recognized with one star — Talea by Antonio Guida, for its “Cucina di Famiglia” or family style Italian cuisine; Hakkasan, a restaurant celebrating traditional Cantonese flavors; and ultra-trendy Japanese restaurant 99 Sushi Bar — notable for creations such as whole king crab leg au gratin, with wasabi, tobiko and yuzu mayonnaise.

Down the road in Dubai — Abu Dhabi’s boisterous neighbor and unofficial rival — an impressive eleven restaurants were served Michelin stars, including upmarket Italian eatery Armani Ristorante located at the base of the city’s most famous landmark, the soaring Burj Khalifa.

Chef Giovanni Papi confirmed to CNBC that accolades this year from the likes of Michelin have been pulling in well-to-do foodies, both locals and tourists alike. “Since our latest recognitions and awards, we have seen an increase in gourmet guests,” he said.

The kitchen at Armani Ristorante is currently showcasing an ambitious truffle-themed degustation menu starting at 949 dirhams ($258) a head — or 1,559 dirhams with wine pairing. It includes intricate dishes such as Bottoni Ripieni, composed of button-shaped ravioli filled with braised lamb and artichoke, Castelmagno cheese fondue, and lamb ragout.

While there are officially no three-star Michelin restaurants yet in the UAE, November did see three Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire swing by his restaurant Pierre’s TT at the InterContinental Dubai. The French maestro is a regular visitor to Dubai and has been one of the more serious global chefs setting the gastronomic agenda in the emirate.

For a few nights only, well-heeled guests sampled creations such as pan-fried squid with black garlic, Paris mushrooms and rocket.

Gagnaire commented at the event: “The food scene here is fast developing … this visit put me in awe to see the remarkable achievements that the country has achieved in developing the food craft so exquisitely and there can be no more inspiring location than Dubai for a restaurant.”

Michelin chiefs agree, saying that the UAE is now on par with the big global gourmet destinations such as Paris, New York, Singapore, and London.

“The selection criteria for all Michelin Guide restaurants are the same as per our global standard review process, where anonymous inspectors review all cuisines and evaluate only the quality of the dishes,” Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guides, told CNBC.

“We would say the restaurants in the Michelin Guide selection in the UAE are equal to the big cities.”

Local cuisine?

However, for some local gastronomists there is a fly in the consommé — the fact that although this year’s Michelin selection encompassed cuisines from across the European and Asian continents, no UAE restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine was awarded a star.

Speaking to CNBC, Samantha Wood, founder of popular impartial restaurant review website commented: “The UAE’s heavy reliance on imported produce, despite a growing choice of local ingredients is a detriment — which ties into the high price tag attached to restaurants here. However, what’s more disappointing, is that some restaurants that do maximize our local bounty are not recognized in the Michelin guide.”

Wood added: “Of the 11 one and two star restaurants in the Dubai guide, only two are independent, chef-led concepts — despite the huge pool of talent here. It’s these restaurants who Michelin should be recognizing at the highest level, rather than focusing on imported celeb chef concepts available anywhere in the world.”

Best value awards

There was recognition for Middle Eastern cooking among the Michelin Bib Gourmand awardees — a category for restaurants that offer a three-course gourmet experience priced at an average of 250 dirhams. Winners include home-style Levantine restaurant Bait Maryam, and Al Khayma, featuring rustic Emirati cooking.

Interestingly, restaurants with the Bib Gourmand distinction have carved out a successful niche for themselves. Far from being sub-Michelin venues, they’re being enjoyed as Instagrammable spaces for a special dining experience — perhaps without the austerity of the Michelin star tag.

A nice example is Fi’lia on the 70th floor of the glamourous new SLS Dubai hotel. This trendy eatery offers “fresh ingredients from the firewood oven and grill, handmade breads and pasta” with a distinctly upmarket twist. Think gnocci and caviar with rosemary butter, and 1kg salt crusted branzino.

The management at Fi’lia appear more than happy with their foodie ranking.

“Our objective was never to aim towards a Michelin star, and we are quite realistic about it,” Claudio Cardoso, culinary director at SLS Dubai Hotel, told CNBC.

“Having a Bib Gourmand on the other hand really reflects on what was always the aim of Fi’lia, affordable dishes with good quality ingredients. It’s all about good food that people can relate to … like our mothers used to make.”

And with this culinary boost for the UAE’s travel sector, leaders have announced plans to supercharge the tourism sector and increase its contribution to the national GDP from the current 177 billion UAE dirhams to a whopping 450 billion dirhams by 2031.

According to Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri, minister of the economy, the strategy plans to attract investments worth 100 billion dirhams and bring 40 million hotel guests to the region.

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