With the holy month of Ramadan nearly upon us, we received an invite to our first Iftar preview of the season. For those who don’t know, Iftar is one of the religious observances of Ramadan and is the breaking of one’s fast, following the Maghreb (sunset) prayer. Iftar is often a community gathering, an opportunity to break the daily fast in the company of family and friends and an act that traditionally begins by eating three dates alongside a glass of milk.
During Ramadan, Iftar meals are offered by most hotels and restaurants and generally consist of a large buffet featuring a variety of Arabic inspired dishes. The offering at Al Maeda is no different and we were delighted to be invited down to the restaurant to preview the Iftar selection, on what was (fittingly) a dry night in recognition of Isra and Mi’raj.
The Hilton Doubletree Jumeriah is not a hotel that we were familiar with and despite it’s fantastic location at the far end of The Walk, the first impression had us a little dubious. Al Maeda restaurant is accessed from the underground car park for the hotel, a hot and oppressive space with claustrophobically low ceilings (an unfortunate structural design that continues all the way into the restaurant entranceway). Following the age old motto of “never judge a book by it’s cover,” we ventured inside following a route laid out by twinkling Arabic lanterns, housed in glass jars upon the floor. What we encountered at the far end of the path was the warm and welcoming Al Maeda restaurant.
Passing the hostess stand, Al Maeda opens up to reveal it’s true aesthetic. A light and airy space and one that feels somewhat homely and familiar, though seemingly unable to shake off the soulless atmosphere of it’s all day dining functionality – a common trait amongst hotel restaurants. Thankfully the Arabic hospitality of the staff, more than makes up for the atmosphere and works in the restaurants favour. Staff were attentive and friendly, greeting guests with dates and Arabic coffee, before providing a quick tour of the buffet. For us it was handy to receive these brief explanations, as some of the lesser known dishes were not familiar to us.
Al Maeda is tastefully decorated with Arabic accents and a treasure trove of Arabian inspired trinkets, from the glassware through to coloured lanterns (fanos). The Arabic coffee pot (wallah) is the focal point of the room and towers over the central buffet. There is something that evokes the feeling an Arabian souk that we couldn’t quite place our finger on, maybe the music or the aromatic smells escaping from the open kitchen. Either way the Iftar experience will be enhanced further by a traditional oud player, alongside the talent of Emirati artist Ahmed Al Mohair, who will be showcasing his work throughout the month.
We especially liked the open kitchen where we could witness Khubiz Arabi (Arabian bread) being freshly baked and passed out in small woven baskets. The buffet itself is laid out on a long central table, reminiscant of a homely dining area, that enhances the Iftar concept and the idea of sharing a family meal. The buffet at Al Maeda is most certainly a veritable feast for the eyes and a rainbow of vibrant colours and textures.
The chefs at Al Meada are Syrian and Moroccan and therefore bring a mixture of influences into the cuisine presented, with Chef Lawrence Alnajjad stating:
“The preparation for the holy month of Ramadan is very important for us, we want to make sure every Iftar and Suhoor is wholesome and rich ready to be enjoyed amongst family members and friends.”
These sentiments ring true with the buffet including everything from fresh salads through to mezze (of the hot and cold variety), rice dishes, live-cooking stations and of course… desserts. All your favourites (hummus, fattoush and more) are available, plus ample breads and a refreshing exotic fruit platter, just perfect after a day of fasting.
Dishes are nicely complemented by a refreshing selection of Ramadan drinks, including fresh juices, Jallab (a popular Middle Eastern drink that mixes dates, grape molasses and rose water) and Amar al Din (made from Apricots), a drink that is seen to aid the digestive system, which is essential during the holy month.
The traditional Ramadan Iftar is inspired by some of the most popular Levant and North African dishes. Walking the hot buffet and live stations, we were pleasantly surprised to see Ouzi (slow roasted whole lamb on a bed of spicy rice), perfectly cooked beef, Kousa Mahshi (stuffed zucchini) and chicken mohlakia (cooked with the bitter Nalta jute leaves).
Our favourites items were the Dawood Basha (Lebanese meatballs), Mambos chicken (an Emirati dish similar to a biriyani), vegetable cous cous and Chermoula fish (grilled fish cooked in cilantro, parsley and cumin). The last two being distinctly Moroccan dishes, showing the North African influences of the chef’s team creeping in. There was apparently also a fragrant and tender tagine that we somehow missed
Regular readers will know that we’re not the biggest fans of aubergine, but we were pleasantly surprised once again by the baba ghanoush. With its smoky aubergine and bejewelled pomegranate seeds, helping to elevate the normally bland vegetable.
The Iftar buffet at Al Maeda contains a large selection of food and thankfully the ethos is for quality, as all the dishes that we sampled (we obviously didn’t try everything) were fresh and flavoursome. Making a refreshing change from hotel buffets where quantity far outweighs the quality.
As mentioned earlier, the colours of the foods, especially the salads, were part of what made the food here so appealing. The bright pinks of beetroot mutable, through to the vivid oranges displayed in the carrot salad. The food itself spoke of textures and aromas before it even made it to our mouths and the dishes were all extremely well thought out and artfully presented.
Like many buffets the desserts looked good, but were ultimately disappointing. The colours and dainty presentation of these items always look immaculate, but the flavour is somewhat lacking. The only dessert that actually tasted as good as it looked were the light and slightly tarte passionfruit panacottas. The remainder of the desserts either tasted artificial, or of nothing other than aerated sugar.
Now, the exception to the entire dessert section, were the Emirati influenced dishes. The Umm Ali (a mixture of croissant, raisins, coconut, almonds, pistachio and condensed milk) is a dish that that can never be made to look that presentable due to its consitanacy, but tasted very good. We also enjoyed the legamat (a favourite of ours), the cone shaped cheese katayef (a traditional Ramadan dessert, deep fried, stuffed with cheese and covered in sugar syrup) and Halwa Bil Jibin (a dense and sweet, tahini based confection). The delectable Chebab (a cardamom and saffron infused Emirati bread that resembles a pancake) showed why Al Maeda should probably stick to the more traditional desserts and scrap the more Westernised offerings like it’s dry and hard coconut tarte or flavourless petit chocolate cakes.
Dining at Al Maeda is a thoroughly enjoyable experience and even though you may not know what all the dishes are, it’s a great ‘crash course’ in Arabic and Moroccan cuisines.
After the meal it is advisable to head out onto the outside terrace for a shisha while gazing out at the Arabian Gulf. The terrace at Al Maeda is the restaurants best feature, as it looks over the under-construction Blue Waters Island and the Eye Of The Emirates. Once the world’s largest ferris wheel is complete (completion is due for the end of 2016), Al Maeda is likely to have one of the nicest views in all of Dubai and that’s saying something!
Despite the beautiful outside location, we had to wait a long time for the shisha. Prompting the staff on a number of occasions, it finally arrived approximately 25 minutes later and was a disappointment. We are unsure as to who made our shisha, but after a few short minutes the tobacco was burnt and became un-smokahle. This may have just been the case for us though, as the other diners were happily puffing away and seemed to be enjoying their ‘hubby bubbly’ – just not us! Thankfully the Moroccan mint tea more than made up for the indescrepancies with the shisha and was poured with such remarkable flair and theatre that the sweet mint flavour rounded out the evening perfectly.
Iftar at Al Maeda proudly presents it’s Levantine cuisine, despite being one of hundreds of restaurants in Dubai that offers the exact same thing. With so many places doing Levantine it is hard to compete, but for a mass produced buffet, the quality here is top notch and dishes are regularly rotated and replenished. Ultimately the positives far outweigh the negatives and with the right promotion, Al Maeda could become one of the “go to” spots on The Walk this Ramadan, predominantly for its beautiful terrace and the homeliness and intimacy of the service.
Location: DoubleTree By Hilton Hotel, The Walk, Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), Dubai
Hours: Iftar 7pm – 2am / Sohour from 9pm – 2am
Price: Iftar buffet 139 AED
Phone: 04 453 3333
We were invited to this event but all views are our own and all photographs are © Out & About UAE, unless otherwise stated. Two interior photographs provided by Al Maeda Restaurant.