I do not know where 2019 went it was a whirlwind of a year and as we stand on the cusp of a new decade it’s time to take stock of the past twelve months of dining. 2019 was a transitional year for Out & About UAE as I reduced the number of restaurant visits in the hopes of generating better quality content about the places that matter, while also attempting (somewhat unsuccessfully) to keep my waistline at bay.
2019 was a positive year for the blog and one that saw my relationship with Fact Magazine continue to flourish, alongside picking up some nice writing gigs for both the BBC and Dining & Nightlife Middle East. I also ventured out from my writing comfort zone, hosting events at both the Rosewood Abu Dhabi and launching my inaugural #DineAroundWithDavid at Mazi in the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort. The last year also saw me travel to Hawaii, Canada, Portugal and The Maldives (twice) and with further international foodie adventures already on the cards for early in the new year, I couldn’t be more excited.
So without further ado, I share with you my top 19 UAE dishes of the year 2019 in the hope of providing you with some dining inspiration:
19. Sticky Toffee Pudding: A’Cappella
A Cappella is a global tapas bar from the same team behind popular modern Indian spots Tresind and Carnival by Tresind but is much more casual than one might expect. With an atmosphere that is very welcoming it’s the concise menu of small plates that is the real draw. Encapsulating highlights from Europe, Asia, South America and India, it was the twist on a traditional the sticky toffee pudding that transpired to be our standout dish – deliciously moist without being overwhelmingly sweet and served with a banana ice cream that’s not to be missed.
18. John Stone Dry Aged Beef Tartare: Bull & Bear
In keeping with the theme of the new Waldorf Astoria DIFC, the hotels signature restaurant Bull and Bear is conceptualized around the notion of 1950s New York and takes inspiration the now-closed restaurant of the same name which was once the centrepiece of the New York property. The restaurant has a timeless feel and we truly appreciate not only the small bar area (which would make for a pleasing spot for a pre-dinner drink) but the concise menu that looks to modernise popular steakhouse classics. The John Stone Dry Aged Beef Tartare (is one such example, offering a flavorful beef rich in both marbling and flavour, embellished with a slow-cooked egg yolk that boasts an alluring velvety texture that works well against the peppery beef.
17. Humus Martabaan: Martabaan
The opening of a new restaurant at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace is a big deal, especially when it comes from acclaimed Chef Hemant Oberoi. Martabaan fits perfectly into the dining repertoire of the Palace and brings ‘contemporary classic’ Indian cuisine to the five-star property just before it undergoes transformation into a Mandarin Oriental from 1st January 2020. Paying tribute to the Middle Eastern location, it’s the humus Martabaan that makes for one of the most exciting choices on an extensive menu. Perfectly balancing the flavours of the Levant and India thanks to cumin chickpeas, pickled hummus and truffle. An impressive dish but one that could be excelled by providing diners with more of the accompanying mini naan bread – bite-sized morsels which are particularly moreish.
16. Momo-Fuku: Carnival by Tresind
The second entry on this years list for the team at Passion F&B (after A Cappella) brings Himanshu Saini’s whimsical menu at Carnival by Tresind into the limelight. The restaurants sixth season managed to keep things fresh with a concept revolving around books and dishes served within them. Yet the Carnival dining experience is about more than presentation gimmicks as displayed in the Momo-Fuku, Chicken momos with red chilli chutney and cucumber salad that are undeniably moreish.
15. Tacos de Tuetano: Puerto 99
2019 was the year that the trend for Greek cuisine in Dubai subsided in favour of a slew of modern-Mexican restaurants. First out of the gate was Puerto 99 on Bluewaters Island which is worth a visit for the tacos de tuetano alone. Presenting two soft shell tacos stuffed with shredded short rib, alongside a bone cut lengthways. The exposed marrow should be scraped and then spread amongst the caramelized onions and serrano chilli sat upon the light tortillas, which in turn adds a robust flavour and slightly gelatinous texture to what has to be Puerto 99’s standout dish.
14. Tuna Pizza: Akira Back
Akira Back at W The Palm was one of our favourite new openings of the year and we adored the brunch concept which allows guests to order unlimited portions from a menu of over 40 items! With each dish skillfully prepared it’s quite easy to be astounded by the ingenuity and sheer audacity of plates such as the Tuna Pizza which offers a crisp base covered in thin slices of tuna that camouflage an umami aioli and white truffle oil concoction hidden beneath. It’s truly revelatory stuff and a textural delight, making it easy to see how this fusion of East and West has become Chef Akira Back’s signature dish.
13. Ceasar Salad: Torno Subito
We’re back at W The Palm again for number thirteen on the list and when Chef Massimo Bottura opens a new restaurant, it’s time to sit up and take note! Bottura’s 3 Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana in Italy topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2018. Yet it’s important to note that Torno Subito is not Osteria Francescana, nor it is trying to be and perhaps this is what has confused Dubai diners in search of a fine-dining experience. The restaurant is undeniably causal and plays directly into a concept that looks to encapsulate Bottura’s childhood holidays spent on the Italian Riviera. Perhaps the most significant choice on the menu for those looking to capture an aspect of the Osteria Francescana dining experience is Torno Subito’s Ceasar Salad (AED75). Looking to bring a piece of Modena to Dubai via a startling combination of 14 ingredients that represent an evolution for this traditional salad. Visually stunning, the mix of ingredients and textures make the salad a must-order, especially if accompanied by a serving of Tagliatelle (available in small or large portions) which is described as Bottura’s favourite and is based upon the same lamb ragu recipe from the aforementioned world’s current number one restaurant.
12. Wagyu Pathar Kebab: Masala Library
Our interested in Masala Library at the JW Marriott Marquis was piqued by a 12-course tasting menu priced at a very reasonable AED 245 which had been drawing crowds to the restaurant since the day they opened in Dubai. The first international outpost of Masala Library follows hot on the heels of restaurants in both Mumbai and New Delhi where Chef Kalra has built a reputation as the “Czar of Indian cuisine.” Due to his ability to transform traditional recipes and dishes from the Indian provinces and reinterpreting them in a contemporary way. The epitome of this is the Wagyu pathar kebab, seared tableside on a hot stone before being plated on a replica bone. The bite-sized morsel is easily the most sought after dish on the menu and it’s easy to see why.
11. Torta al Formaggio: Alici
There is so much to love about Alici which comes to us from the team behind the successful Il Borro Tuscan Bistro and offers diners similar touchpoints – appealing interiors, strong service and simple Italian fare focusing on quality ingredients. As one of the most pleasing openings of the year in terms of consistency in food and service, I’ve recommended the seafood restaurant to so many people in recent months and none have been disappointed. You really can’t go wrong with any of the dishes but the one that left a long-lasting impression was the Torta al formaggio (AED 50) arrives first and is a light and zesty lemon cheesecake served upon a bed of vanilla soil and crafted to look like an actual lemon picked fresh from one of the citrus trees that dot the dining room. A visual sensation is matched in taste and accounts for one of the prettiest dishes we’ve seen for some time.
10. Burrata Pizza: Mare Mare
The year saw the opening of two new Jumeirah properties in Abu Dhabi with the resort on Saadiyat Island bringing notable dining options to the dining scene in the capital. Our venue of choice would have to be Mare Mare, an alfresco Italian venue that can make diners feel immediately relaxed. Sat overlooking the Arabian Gulf, the seafood-heavy menu features Italian favourites elevated via their unique and often audacious plating. Portions are large and the price point is reasonable and we would certainly recommend the burrata pizza which is light and creamy sat upon a crisp base. I liked it so much that this is where I choose to celebrate my birthday this year.
9. Banana Pie: Al Meylas
When Al Meylas, the lobby lounge at the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi announced earlier that they were introducing a raw vegan menu, we didn’t know what to expect! Our experience of vegan food is limited and had led to a pre-conceived expectation of food that’s bland and lacking in texture. Everything changed with the arrival of the Banana Pie (AED 60) crafted by the Four Seasons Abu Dhabi’s Assistant Pastry Chef Rasika Mahina. We’re not going to lie – the tropical flavour of the pie put a HUGE smile our face! Featuring a macadamia nut crust and a light banana and coconut crème filling (we even got the recipe from the chef, which we will attempt to make at home) and represents the methodology and intricate culinary techniques involved in constructing such a unique and on-trend menu. For according to the kitchen rules of raw cooking, the food is heated or “cooked” at temperatures no greater than 47 Celsius to preserve nutrients and enzymes, diminish the energy used for cooking and keep food in its most natural form.
8. Lamb Shank: Chingon
For us, the newly-opened Chingon leads the pack of modern Mexican eateries due to a combination of flavoursome dishes that are unafraid to be bold, striking decor and a nightlife vibe that leaves us wanting more. Perfect for a date night, an evening on the tequila or dinner overlooking the Burj – Chingon seemingly has it all! When it comes to the menu one dish that stood out for us (other than the 24K gold Wagyu taco) was the lamb shank, an impressive combination of sweet and spicy that derives from a mix of miso, hoisin mole, crispy garlic and bean puree. The meat is undeniably tender and literally slides off the bone and once slathered in the accompanying sauce, it was near-impossible to put our knife and fork down until the bowl had literally been licked clean.
7. Chicken Liver Parfait: Phoenix Social Club
No restaurant took me by surprise quite like Phoenix Social Club, a new Dubai opening that can only be described as a post-prohibition nightlife destination that blends speakeasy bar and supper club concept. Most interesting is Phoenix Social Club’s ‘trust the chef’ concept which puts your food entirely in the hands of the kitchen. We haven’t seen anything quite like this in Dubai before and it’s rather exciting to have each dish arriving at the table as a complete surprise. Alluring ingredients and textures come into play with the chicken liver parfait, plated alongside crème fraiche, caramelized yoghurt and endives. It was a dish I wasn’t expecting to like but ended up thoroughly enjoying thanks to the inclusion of rose brings a hint of sweetness and colour to a plate which offers artistic presentation.
6. Jasmine Tea Ribs: Hakkasan
Dining at Hakkasan often feels like eating within an upmarket nightclub, thanks to the modish lighting and amped-up soundtrack. Our most recent visit to the acclaimed Cantonese restaurant was to try some of the dishes from the restaurants’ collection of new allergen-focused menus (vegetarian, nut-free, gluten-free and shellfish-free). The new Jasmine tea smoked Wagyu beef ribs may well have surpassed the Peking Duck as our favourite item on the Hakkasan menu. With the meat beautifully tender and full of robust flavours from the beef and the subtle yet aromatic nuances of the tea.
5. Hamachi Kinilaw: Matagi
Villamore may be our preferred dining destination at Emerald Palace by Kempinski but Asian steakhouse Matagi has one spectacular dish that makes a drive out to the East Crescent of the Palm Jumeirah worth your time. We were entirely surprised by the beguiling blend of spicy and sweet found in the Hamachi Kinilaw and can’t believe it’s taken us 35 years to have our first taste of this Filipino staple. Made with yellowtail, lotus root, Acacia honey and a coconut reduction, the resulting dish is vibrant in both colour and taste and as we suggested back in January of this year is an easy inclusion for our best of 2019 dish list!
4. Feta Tempura: Mazi Abu Dhabi
I’ve been very vocal about my enjoyment of Mazi, the modern Greek restaurant that has recently opened at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island. For those expecting traditional Greek recipes this may not be for you but if you’re looking for audacious cuisine that is full of flavour and exciting combinations of ingredients, then look no further. The signature feta tempura (AED 50) uses an interesting interplay between sweet and sour to enliven the palate thanks to a dollop of sweet lemon marmalade and a beautiful caper meringue which sit proudly upon the crisp golden cheese. It’s easy to see how this has become Mazi’s best-selling dish and we confess that this is perhaps one of the best dishes we have eaten in a restaurant this year.
3. Scarlet Shrimp: Tasca
This year I was lucky enough to dine at Chef José Avillez’ Tasca at the Mandarin Oriental and his Belcanto in Lisbon which boasts two Michelin stars and was recently ranked no.42 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2019. While the restaurants are somewhat different there is one dish that transcends both menus and its the grilled scarlet shrimp. A representation of sheer simplicity at its very best! Plating a large Portuguese shrimp that has been lightly grilled and served with Tasca sauce and yuzu mayonnaise. This dish was so good that we ordered it twice.
2. Spanish Octopus: Aya
I’m still yet to publish my review of Aya, the latest restaurant from acclaimed Chef Izu Ani. Aya’s menu is interesting and injects the traditional Japanese dishes with a Mediterranean twist in a menu that comprises of mezze, buns, rolls, raw, josperyaki, mains and sides. The mains though limited in number maintain the consistency for quality that the dining experience at Aya successfully strives for, the Spanish Octopus reveals a tender tendril, loving coated in a sticky red yuzu glaze that successfully manages to strike the ideal balance between sweet and spicy. An accompaniment of coriander emulsion completes one of our favourite plates of the year.
1. Sanchoku Wagyu Sando: Reif Kushiyaki
Reif Othman’s small restaurant opened at Dubai’s Dar Wasl Mall in early September, garnering rave reviews and a constant queue of hungry diners eager to see what homegrown talent Othman has created with his latest vision. The focus at Reif Japanese Kushikyaki hones in on the traditional Japanese street food known as Kushiyaki (grilled skewers) yet it’s the Sanchoku Wagyu Sando (AED 145) that’s my dish of the year! Presenting generously sliced marinated Wagyu, slathered with a sweet and viscous tonkatsu sauce and sandwiched between thick slices of Japanese milk bread that are deceptively light. Perhaps the most Instagrammed dish of 2019, we are delighted to see it now appearing on menus in the UAE though we suspect none will be as good as Reif’s.
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As 2019 draws to a close we’d like to give a massive thank you to all the readers of Out & About UAE for your continued support. Generating an impressive 278,199 unique views since inception, please keep liking, sharing and commenting for we have plenty of surprises in store for you in the New Year.
– Team Out & About