Visiting Freej Swaileh, we had absolutely no intention of blogging about it. What was supposed to be a quiet family dinner, transpired to be something altogether different – a thoroughly enjoyable experience that was about more than just the food. Now the term ‘hidden gem’ is thrown around all too often, but there is no other phrase we can use to describe Freej Swaileh, a restaurant housed in a large villa in Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa City (very close to Al Forsan Sports Resort and Al Yasmina school), though it’s unlikely that many would know of its existence, as all signage is in Arabic.
With ample parking out front and a separate building purely for take away, Freej Swaileh is an extremely popular spot for local families and Arab expats. The brand originates from Kuwait and has now been transported to the UAE, with a unique Emirati twist.
Entering through large double doors, the space feels more like a museum than a restaurant. Emirati heritage items adorn the walls and stand proudly as focal pieces of the restaurants simple decor – from fans woven from palm fronds, to kerosene lamps and the ornate sticks used in traditional Ayala dancing. The theme is distinctly desert chic with wooden shutters, retro radios and even a gramophone.
Tables are decorated with tablecloths of bedouin tribal colours and the same textiles provide curtains for private dining booths. The villas second floor is home to the family area and has a playroom with train sets, crafting and movies for children. There is also a small shop full of sweets, confectionary and trinkets, that many Emirati’s would associate with childhood. The shop was busier than the restaurant during the time of our visit.
The rustic Emirati theme is more than just the decor, with staff (even the non-Arabic ones) dressed in traditional garments such as the kandura and introducing themselves to diners by their Arabic names. Before menus are even presented, guests are offered Arabic coffee (in this case the finest white coffee from Riyadh). Traditional qahwa is an acquired taste – for it is bitter and mixed with spices such as cardamom – presented in bright and colourful cups and accompanied by one of our favourite Emirati dishes, the crisp golden fried dumplings known as Luqaimat. These moorish balls of fried fermented butter are usually served as a dessert and the name literally translates as “small bites.”
With Arabic music providing a nice ambiance, guests are left to peruse the menu in peace. The menu is extensive and comprises breakfast items, shorba (soups), salads, grilled meats, fish and fawala (desserts). Beverages range from hot coffees and teas, to juices and mocktails, with our selection being the thirst-quenching mojito and lemon mint.
Chips Oman Samboosa was our selected appetiser, the Emirati version of a samosa, in which pastry is stuffed with Chips Oman and deep fried. For those who don’t know, chips Oman are crisps (or potato chips to our American readers) that have been a staple of UAE childhood since 1989 and are the most popular snack item in the Gulf Region, a comfort food that is often billed as the unofficial national dish. The popularity of the product has culminated in their inclusion in dishes on menus throughout the Emirates, from sushi to sandwiches, and now the samboosa. Each time we have eaten these crunchy potato snacks as part of a dish, we have been suitably impressed and this time was no different.
During a visit to Freej Swaileh, diners will realise just how friendly and hospitable service can be, with staff being accommodating and allowing us to order breakfast items, despite the fact that it was evening. The reason for ordering breakfast items was our love for the sweet balalit. A dish that takes vermicelli noodles cooked with sugar, cardamom and saffron and served with a fluffy omelette, is the ultimate pick-me-up food Now our knowledge of Emirati cuisine is not at all extensive, but balalit is something that we just love and this version did not disappoint.
Main courses were recommended by our attentive waiter and what arrived at our table was a mixture of delicious grilled items. From a traditional mixed grill of marinated chicken, lamb chops and kebab, to a seafood platter of jumbo shrimp, calamari, salmon pieces and spiced fish fillet. Opting for another Emirati classic, we devoured hammour machboose, where rice is simmered in fish stock, Emirati spices and dried lemon.
All of the grilled meats were succulent and the portions were large, to the point that much of the food came home with us for dinner the following day. Our only real criticism of the food is that it was quite heavy on the salt.
Other menu highlights include thareed (an Emirati stew), salted fish and ouzi. It was refreshing to see local favourites taking such precedence on the menu, as sometimes it can be quite tricky to track down the national dishes of the UAE.
Freej Swaileh proudly presents its Emirati heritage and encourages diners to sample dishes and delicacies that they would otherwise be unaware of and as is customary in Arabic restaurants, complimentary breads, salads and pickles are provided.
A traditional Emirati meal wouldn’t be complete with karak chai and (of course) more Luqaimat. The karak here is infused with saffron and cardamom for a slightly different take on the traditional tea and these extra ingredients are a welcome addition to an already comforting and frothy beverage, that is much akin to warm hug.
Freej Swaileh provides not only an education is the cuisine of this country that we call home but also a lesson in Emirati culture and the history of the UAE. Walls are hung with beautiful old photographs of Abu Dhabi from 1948, depicting interesting scenes like the corniche area and Maqta fort. Allowing guests to revel at how far Abu Dhabi has come – what was once a traditional fishing village is now a glass metropolis – and the photos remind us of that.
Leaving the restaurant, female diners and children are sprinkled with rose water. Allowing them to take a little piece of Emirati traditions home with them. Freej Swaileh is a great place to bring guests to experience true Arabic hospitality. It is well worth seeking out – just look out for the Arabic text shown in the image below:
Location: Opposite Spar Supermarket, Khalifa City A, Abu Dhabi
Hours: 7:30am – 11:30pm
Phone: 02 304 8051
All views within this blog are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated.
Read more of Out & About UAE’s adventures with Emirati food: Dining Emirati Style At Seven Sands, JBR