French Fries in the Desert

Desert rain is almost unbearably alluring. I’m on holiday in Dubai, and yesterday the city was lashed with a tempestuous storm. After the shimmering heat of the day, it was tantalizing. The kind of rain that tempts you outside, inviting you to soak in its’ dramatic, mysterious glamour.

Of course we did nothing of that sort. Dubai’s far too hip for such deliciously hippy notions. The romance of Arabian Nights, complete with images of plush flying carpets, mysteriously smoky hookah bars and glimmering Ali Baba caves, takes a backseat to swinging nightclubs, soaring skyscrapers and Christian Louboutin-studded malls.

However, we do get to soak in the flavours of the world. With a population that’s reportedly 80 per cent expatriate, there’s no better place to take a culinary flying carpet around the globe. There’s Starbucks pushing its skinny macchiatos topped with a crisscross caramel lattice, the German Hafbrauhaus delighting in potatoes and celebrated Japanese Nobu, appropriately set beside an astonishing aquarium, glistening with dancing Stingrays and intimidatingly languid sharks at the unabashedly sparkly Atlantis hotel.

This pot pourri of cultures can be surprisingly addictive. We begin our day with Bikram yoga at a trendy little gym called Stretch, in a room heated to 44 degrees, presumably to eliminate those pesky little toxins. That’s followed by a delightfully-titled ‘Disco Chai’ at the sleepy Al Hara teashop, specialising in the rich, milky, fragrant tea twanging with spices and bobbing with smooth cardamom pods. The days whirl by in a flurry of designer shoe shops, frequent cappuccino halt and some avid star gazing at Tiffany’s, in the best of Audrey Hepburn traditions.

At night, of course, there’s clubbing. Stunning open air 360˚ at the Jumiera Beach Resort that sticks into the sea, providing hookahs and a view to die for, set to addictive house music. The trendy Kewa lounge, with icy mojitoes spiked with generous amounts of fresh mint leaves. And Chi, refuge of the eternally cool, with it’s spicy, bite sized, crisp chilly chicken.

Yet Dubai works hard on maintaining a traditional Arab ethos, which makes for interesting dining. Sometimes bizarrely so. We eat risotto at the Madinat Jumeira hotel, watching European tourists turn tomato-red as they balance gingerly on  traditional abra boats, and then bump into a falconer complete with his wicked looking feathered friend in the hotel’s reincarnation of a souk.

Then, to celebrate the desert rain we head to the popular Reem Ul Bawadi, wrapped in the gorgeous aromas of smoky barbeques and ringed with a parking lots boasting sunshine yellow Ferraris, gleaming Audis and deadly Ford Mustangs. Inside, it’s satisfyingly Arabic. Men in crisp, white kandouras with flowing ghoutta head dresses sit wrapped affectionately by thick rings of hookah smoke. Women in stunningly smoky eye makeup drift by. The ceiling’s covered in a sack cloth, and
liberally dotted with swinging lanterns. The deliberately rough walls are covered with an assortment of swords, ceramic and painting suffused with the golden glow of the sun on sand dunes.

Not surprisingly, the food’s fantastic. Creamy hummus, bounding with flavour and topped with a golden pool of olive oil, teamed with succulent barbequed chicken and a pungent, creamy, addictive garlic dip. They come with fluffy kuboose. A picturesque ink-blue hookah completes the picture, bubbling cheerfully below chunks of glowing

The menu, interestingly, isn’t completely free of the insidious fingers of globalisation. The chicken comes on a bed of French fries for instance. Between the baba ganouj, kibeh and za’atar on saj, there’s penne arrabbiata, margarita pizza and even filet mignon.  Even the hookah comes in every flavour from mint to cappuccino. And yes, there are cheese samosas.

Yet, as the fruity smoke blends with the flavours of the barbeque and the restaurant fills with people of a dozen nationalities, speaking a babel of languages, it still feels like a scene out of the Arabian Nights. Clearly Aladdin and skyscrapers don’t make for a bad combination after all.

Next stop, the Spice Souk, I plan to take a traditional abra across the river to hunt down exotic Arabic spices. 

You have a good week at work. Bwa ha ha.



March 2023