Olive oil traditionally influences the cuisine of the Mediterranean but it’s crude oil that has played a significant role in the recent rapid development of Abu Dhabi’s culinary scene.
A trip to the Manarat Al Saadiyat cultural and exhibition centre, the home of the eclectic Fanr restaurant, provides insights into the heritage and evolution of this emirate, whose capital was essentially still a seafront village prior to the first exports of oil in 1962. Revenues from oil have transformed Abu Dhabi into a vibrant, multicultural, high-rise city characterised by state-of-the-art architecture. The local boom that was only partially muted during the global recession is creating demand for quality international cuisine and helping to finance the opening of luxury hotels with restaurants headed by proven chefs, such as Sandro Gamba at the Emirates Palace, Michel Jost at the Yas Viceroy, and Wolfgang Eberle at the Rosewood .
The arrival of a noteworthy culinary scene is being embraced as part of Abu Dhabi’s strategic vision to diversify away from reliance on oil revenues, partly by drawing high-spending cultural travellers. After visiting sites of interest such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which opened in 2007, championship golf courses that see sunshine during winter months, plus attractions affiliated to the Louvre, Guggenheim and British Museum, whose openings are planned over the next few years, it’s reasoned that tourists will want to eat well.
Gary Rhodes opened Rhodes44, on the 44th floor of the St Regis Abu Dhabi, last August. His restaurant serves modern British, Continental and Arabian-influenced dishes. An outdoor dining area provides views of the beaches and tiled promenade down at the Corniche. As with many of the city’s leading restaurants, Friday brunches here prove a popular time to socialise while grazing.
Scott’s, the long-established London seafood restaurant, has opened a waterfront branch in a chic, contemporary structure by the Jumeirah hotel’s private beach.
Sanjeev Kapoor, the Indian chef and television celebrity, widely known for his appearances on Khana Khazana and his Food Food channel is opening Signature by Sanjeev Kapoor in the Nations Tower. Abu Dhabi has recently seen a significant demand for quality cuisine from the Subcontinent, as India is the leading provider of tourism arrivals to the emirate.
In part, the development of Abu Dhabi’s fine-dining scene has been organic, to meet the demand of ex-pats. Yet design also plays a role. The first Gourmet Abu Dhabi festival was held in 2009 as part of efforts to raise the emirate’s profile as a culinary destination. This year’s festival runs from 4 to 19 February.
“This is our sixth year and I’m looking forward to it. Every year we add new events; we come up with creative ideas to showcase chefs and interact with our guests. This year we will hold an opera night with our main sponsor, San Pellegrino mineral water. George Calombaris - the Australian chef and judge of Masterchef Australia - is coming and we going to have an intimate class with 24 only people and 24 stations,” says Noura Al Dhaheri, the festival’s project manager.
“For each chef we will have the same classes. It will be personal and people will have the chance to ask questions and get more about the way of cooking,” she adds. Massimo Bottura, Michael Caines and Cyril Lignac are among the international chefs attending. Khulood Atiq, a female TV-chef and author of Sarareed : Emirati Cuisine From the Sea to the Desert, will showcase local cuisine, finger foods and fusion dishes.
Rice and slow-cooked fish and meat dishes, such as spice-infused meshui and makbous, are often recognised as representative of this region. Yet Al Dhaheri thinks something far more fundamental defines local dining traditions: “When I think about Emirati food it’s a gathering of people. We tend to eat in a big group; people don’t eat alone. We sit on the floor and eat with our hands; people and families eat together. It’s sharing.”
So how does one go about tasting authentic Emirati cuisine? If you can’t get an invitation into a local home you might want to head to Mezlai or Al Arish. Alternatively, for a fusion of Arabian and Moroccan dishes, try Agadir, rated ‘Best Regional Cuisine’ restaurant at last year’s Gourmet Abu Dhabi.
To enjoy Abu Dhabi’s modern traditions you can dine on exquisitely presented Nobu style cuisine at Kazu, while overlooking the Formula 1 circuit that sweeps under the Yas Viceroy Hotel’s futuristic facade. Like the cars that participate in that race, Abu Dhabi’s fine-dining scene is, ultimately, international and moving at pace.
The Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort and Spa
Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Sas Al Nakhl
+971 (0)2 6169999
Al Mina Area (Near the Fish Market)
+971 (0)2 6732266
PO Box 126888 Abu Dhabi
+971 (0) 2 6575888
Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi,
PO Box 131808 Abu Dhabi
+971 (0) 2 6560000
Emirates Palace Hotel
+971 (0) 2 6907999
The St. Regis Abu Dhabi,
+971 (0) 2 6944553
Jumeirah Etihad Towers
+971 (0) 2 8115666