A taste of Dubai, from organic farms to meat boutiques

From kebab shops and organic farms to meat boutiques and a new food hall, there are countless ways to eat out in Dubai.

Time Out Market Dubai brings together 17 of the city’s best homegrown food businesses, handpicked for their popularity among the city’s diners.

Photograph by Jack Wilkinson
By Samia Qaiyum
Published 15 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 20 Oct 2021, 16:32 BST

For roots and shoots

Arriving at Emirates Bio Farm feels a little like stumbling upon an oasis. Set in a hushed landscape of shifting sand dunes, close to the Abu Dhabi border, its 62 acres are used to grow over 70 varieties of certified-organic produce, including kale, cucumbers, tomatoes and turnips.

Besides supplying retailers and consumers with fruit and vegetables, the farm hosts events such as sunset yoga, dining pop-ups with renowned chefs, educational talks and tractor tours. As I walk towards the onsite restaurant The Farmer’s Table, I spot a group of children enthralled by some cud-chewing goats. The restaurant sits within one of many greenhouses, offering front-row views of the farmers at work. There’s no fixed menu — the farm-to-table food is created from whatever has been picked that day. Right now, they’re serving a brunch of scrambled eggs (the resident hens lay over 8,000 eggs a day), freshly baked rye bread, baba ghanoush made with the farm’s own aubergines and carrot cake topped with beetroot jam (one of the kitchen’s bestsellers). All of the dishes are meat-free, and the star of the show today is bottle gourd bass. A popular ingredient in curries across the Indian subcontinent, this firm-fleshed gourd is cut into ‘fillets’ and pan-fried so it has a similar look and texture to seared sea bass (complete with crispy skin), before being lightly seasoned with fresh herbs.

“We’re here to make vegan and vegetarian food fun. You’re eating locally, we’re getting creative with what we have,” says Yazen Al Kodmani, the operations manager. “But it’s our zero-waste mentality that really drives our creativity. Aiming to use all parts of a vegetable, we produce an earthy carrot-top pesto that works well as a pasta sauce. Broccoli leaves are stuffed with rice to create dolmas. We use beetroot leaves in salads because they’re rich in folate. Why throw them away?”

‘Ugly’ vegetables also have a role to play. “Some are misshapen or too small and not suitable for the market, so they become jams, sauces and pickles,” adds Yazen. I pick up a jar of seven-spice chilli pickle to take home, only to add a bottle of eggplant jam as I’m about to leave. Like the menu, the pantry selection changes frequently, so it’s important to seize the day — and the jar of jam. 

A veggie parfait at The Farmer’s Table, the onsite restaurant at Emirates Bio Farm.

A veggie parfait at The Farmer’s Table, the onsite restaurant at Emirates Bio Farm.

Photograph by The Farmer’s Table

For haute couture cuts

In Wafi City mall is The Dry-Aged Boutique, a shop that bills itself as ‘the world’s only dry-aged meat boutique’. As I look around, well-heeled shoppers step inside to peek at rib-eye, tomahawk and T-bone steaks sourced from Japan, Australia and the US. The centrepiece is a triple-glazed display case, eight metres wide, its contents dramatically lit. My eye is drawn to a piece of Wagyu short loin coated in edible gold. How very Dubai, I think. Yet, after meeting owner Mirco Beutler, I’m convinced it’s not a case of style over substance. 

Originally from Germany, the self-styled ‘Dry-Ager Guy’ has over 12 years’ experience in the food industry, supplying dry-aged meats to upscale steakhouses and restaurants — and, now, consumers. The Dry Age Boutique isn’t just a butcher’s shop, it’s a destination — one that offers an education in the art and science of dry-ageing meat. The cuts, Mirco tells me, are either hung or kept on racks at roughly 1.5C. With each aged from 28 to over 100 days, they become tastier and more tender with time. Balance is key — too little time means not enough moisture is lost, too much time can mean there’s not much meat left. While beef is best suited to the process, goose, duck, lamb, Bresse chicken and rack of veal are also on offer. And they don’t come cheap: 695g of the Black Angus porterhouse will set you back AED 368.35 (£74). 

In Mirco’s experience, however, these are prices steak enthusiasts are willing to pay, with the pandemic only working in his favour. “I understood that restaurants and steakhouses were closed, but the demand of the people — the connoisseurs — was still the same. They wanted steakhouse quality at home; they wanted to enjoy their meats.” He shows me the adjacent tasting room, where shoppers can sample a selection of cuts (grilled to order by the in-house chef) before buying. Because the mall has no alcohol licence, Mirco also occasionally teams up with a nearby wine bar for wine and steak pairings.

Next — if all goes to plan — will be venues in New York and London. “I’m envisioning a speakeasy-type set-up,” Mirco explains. For now, though, he continues to experiment with dry-ageing different proteins, including yellowfin tuna, and to serve his loyal customers here in Dubai. Mirco is confident it’s a recipe for success: “Nobody else has ever sold meat like it’s designer jewellery,” he says. 

The USA Porterhouse Steak at The Dry-Aged Boutique, which bills itself as ‘the world’s only dry-aged ...

The USA Porterhouse Steak at The Dry-Aged Boutique, which bills itself as ‘the world’s only dry-aged meat boutique’.

Photograph by The Dry Age Boutique

For homegrown heroes 

At BB Social Dining, the habibti bao marries Japanese flavours such as wasabi with a steamed Chinese bun containing a soft-shell crab. At Brix, the African powerhouse is a dessert pairing a rich cake — made with single-origin Ghanaian dark chocolate — with luxurious, Madagascan vanilla ice cream. Meanwhile, the fiery Nashville chicken sandwich at Pickl attracts food-lovers from as far away as Abu Dhabi, a 70-mile drive away. These exquisite dishes can all be found under one roof at one of Dubai’s newest gastronomic destinations, which opened in April this year.

Within Souk Al Bahar, Time Out Market Dubai brings together 17 of the city’s best homegrown food businesses, handpicked for their popularity among the city’s diners. Each has its own booth in the 43,000sq ft space, which also contains three bars, long communal tables, a few private dining areas and a wraparound outdoor terrace overlooking the Burj Khalifa.

At Fulvio’s, a crowd has gathered around Italian-born chef Fulvio Opalio, who’s scraping a 40kg wheel of grana padano cheese. It’s the climax of the theatrical cooking process behind his signature risotto with black truffle, and the key to its creamy consistency. “It stays true to the Italian way of cooking,” Fulvio says. “Simple, yet focused on the best possible ingredients. Most importantly, it’s made with love.”

Next, I venture over to Masti, where a steady stream of diners is proof of Dubai’s appetite for contemporary Indian cuisine. “[We] have defied people’s perception that the dishes are always spicy, making it more approachable,” explains chef Prashant Chipkar. The Hindi word ‘masti’ means ‘mischief’, a quality evident across Prashant’s dishes. For example, the avocado ceviche pani puri injects a street-food favourite with guacamole — and while it’s citrussy and refreshing, there’s no raw fish to be found here, despite the nod to ceviche in the dish’s name. Meanwhile, the truffle khichadi khakra heaps a cracker-like base with wild mushrooms and truffle caviar. “Dubai is a melting pot, so using ingredients from around the world comes naturally after living here for a while,” Prashant tells me.

Elsewhere in the market, Reif is a popular spot for kushiyaki (all things skewered and grilled). I defy convention, though, and choose the crabmeat uramaki, a sushi roll in which sweet, soft crabmeat is offset by crunchy cucumber and crispy rice, with the whole thing brightened by a tiny dollop of yuzu-kosho mayo. 

Finally, I pay a visit to Local Fire, where the effervescent Hattem Mattar caters to a queue of carnivores with everything from sliced brisket to smoked beef chorizo. Touted as the world’s first Arab pitmaster, he has a fanatical following who come for creations such as the pastrami reuben. “It takes 14 days to create that sandwich, reflecting our commitment,” he says. With culinary inspiration drawn from such varied sources as his Egyptian mother’s kitchen and an apprenticeship at a Texan smokehouse, Hattem refers to his barbecue as “third-culture cuisine”. 

Aerial view of Dubai’s skyline shrouded in fog.

An aerial view of Dubai’s skyline shrouded in fog.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Kinoya

A cult favourite

“I’ve always loved noodles and broth, and my instinct is to recreate something I really like,” chef-restaurateur Neha Mishra tells me. I’m at Kinoya, seated at a horigotatsu, a low table with a recessed floor beneath it. The long-anticipated restaurant is an evolution of Neha’s supper club, which centred around ramen and hosted 6,000 people over the course of three years — in her living room. “I started cooking for myself; it’s how I de-stressed,” she says. “What followed wasn’t calculated in any way. Both the supper club and Kinoya are byproducts of something that I love to do.”

Neha’s background is noteworthy — particularly the fact she’s never lived in Japan. Born in India and raised between Kenya and South Africa, she moved to Dubai at the age of 12 and has since dabbled in various cuisines. It was Japanese food, however, that aligned best with her personality. “Japanese culture is hyper-focused — once you get into any kind of discipline, it’s a rabbit hole,” she says.

Neha’s legions of fans say her ramen is the richest and most delicious in Dubai, but the restaurant is renowned for other Japanese dishes too. I select a few izakaya plates (dishes typically served in Japanese bars). The burnt butter scallops — a favourite when Neha was running the supper club — are accompanied by oyster mushrooms in a sweet-smoky sauce, while the creamy miso butter eggplant is sweet and nutty, balanced by the intense umami of bonito flakes served on the side. The almost powdery texture of the flash-fried shishamo (a fish native to Japan), meanwhile, is an acquired taste. For those who come purely for the ramen, Neha recommends the shio variety, its handmade noodles residing alongside crispy chicken and a soft-boiled egg in a multilayered broth. “Ramen is slow food fast,” she says. “It takes a really long time to cook and no time to eat.” 

5. The great escape: Sonara Camp

There aren’t many signposts on Dubai-Al Ain Road and if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the turn-off for Sonara Camp, which sits deep inside the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, a protected area of some 87sq miles.

Moments after I park, I’m perched on a camel, ready for the short ride over to the camp — a chic, open-air restaurant. A family of gazelles pronks past and disappears into the desert. As we approach, the deep sound of someone playing the oud — a stringed instrument similar to a lute — drifts through the air and the low sofas, scatter cushions and brass lanterns of the lounge area come into view. Sonara prides itself on its environmental credentials — as well as being powered entirely by solar energy, there’s also an emphasis on natural materials such as wood and wicker. And while the UAE ranks among the top nations for per capita food waste, Sonara and its executive chef, Franck Sanna, have a zero-waste policy. “Our portions are generous, but we don't overserve. We prefer smaller portions because we have a sharing menu,” he says. As for leftovers, anything organic is composted.

When I arrive, some guests are watching a falconry display, while others are lounging in hammocks as the sun sinks slowly into the towering sand dunes in the distance. Bamboo torches and fairy lights guide the way down to the vast, recessed dining area, where a communal firepit takes centre stage. The service kitchen is also here. Franck explains how his team does all the prep at a central kitchen in the city, before the ingredients are seasoned, cooked and assembled here at the camp.

Having grown up in the south of France, Franck trained at Michelin-starred restaurants, even serving as former French president Jacques Chirac’s personal chef for a short time, but it’s his Italian father and Spanish mother who most influence the Mediterranean-inspired menu at Sonara Camp. The flaky, flavourful perch is slow-cooked in olive oil and served with Taggiasche olives from Italy, for example. Alongside are vegetarian dishes such as tomato ‘ceviche’ and a hearty Sicilian caponata. And because the chef has been tasked by founder Stephanie Danial (a Swiss former banker who loves the desert) with creating a fusion menu, unexpected combinations make an appearance. My favourite are the tiny corn tacos containing a smoky-sweet beef bulgogi filling with a glaze that’s reminiscent of a thick barbecue sauce.

Locally sourced ingredients rank high on Franck's priority list, too. “Instead of importing everything like many chefs in Dubai, the first thing I did was determine what’s around. The seafood diversity is quite interesting — hamour (a term used to refer to various species of fish), lobsters and oysters are easily accessible. I also discovered vegetables like onion and butternut squash being grown on farms in the desert, so I did a version of pissaladière (a type of flatbread often compared to pizza) because I liked the idea of preparing a Mediterranean classic with a local product grown in the sand. Similarly, previous menus have featured butternut squash velouté and soup.”

It’s still a tall order, he admits. “Don’t get me wrong, the flavours of certain vegetables aren’t always ideal because of the climate, but it's still better than importing. I can't claim that all the dishes are made using only locally sourced ingredients. Olive oil is a staple that isn't produced here, for example, so I'll go for Palestinian or Syrian olive oil. I'll use whatever’s regional in that case.” nara.ae

Kebabs on the grill at Al Ustad, a family-owned Iranian spot that draws in everyone from loyal ...

Kebabs on the grill at Al Ustad, a family-owned Iranian spot that draws in everyone from loyal locals to Emirati royals.

Photograph by Al Ustad

Two more Dubai favourites

Al Ustad Special Kebab
In the four decades it’s been open, this family-owned Iranian spot has drawn in everyone from loyal locals to Emirati royals. The kebabs are succulent (marinades include yoghurt, saffron and dried lemon) and complemented by buttery rice. Enjoy them surrounded by the old-school telephones and vintage photos on display. 

Bu Qtair
It’s often said that Anthony Bourdain put Bu Qtair on the map, but this beach-shack-turned-restaurant had snaking queues long before the late chef gave it the nod. Little has changed since the ’90s; there’s still no menu — the star of the show is the catch of the day, marinated in masala and deep fried. Order flaky paratha and creamy coconut curry to go with it.

Chicken karaage with chilli mayonnaise.

Chicken karaage with chilli mayonnaise.

Photograph by Stock Food

Neha Mishra’s karaage recipe

Karaage, a Japanese take on crunchy, deep-fried chicken, was regularly served as a starter with spicy mayonnaise and a crispy shiso leaf at Neha’s supper club. Today, it appears alongside edamame, gyoza and katsu sando in the izakaya section of Kinoya’s menu.

Serves: 2    
Takes: 30 mins 

600g chicken thighs, skin on, halved
30g fresh ginger, grated
5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 ½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar 
10ml dark soy sauce
380g potato starch
½ litre vegetable oil
1. Put the chicken, ginger, garlic, salt, sugar and soy sauce in a bowl and mix together. Leave to marinade in the fridge for at least 1 hr, or ideally overnight. 
2. Coat the marinated chicken in the potato starch. 
3. Pour the oil into a saucepan and heat to a temperature of 180C. Carefully add the chicken and fry for 7 mins, or until crispy and golden-brown in colour.


Getting there
Both Emirates and British Airways serve Dubai from the UK.   

Where to stay
XVA Art Hotel has doubles from AED 128 (£25) a night, room only. 

How to do it
TUI offers five nights at the Hyatt Regency Dubai, room only, from £665 per person in December, including flights from Birmingham. 

More info

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