Gourmet food in the UAE is taking on Paris, New York and London

Chefs and owners pose for a photo on stage during a ceremony to reveal the 2022 selection of the Michelin Guide Dubai, the first edition in the United Arab Emirates, on June 21, 2022.

Giuseppe Cacace | Afp | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – While the economic outlook for much of the world is forecast to be difficult for 2023, there is a good mood in the Gulf.

This is partly after the lucrative soccer frenzy in Qatar, but also because the region’s tourism sector has never had it so good.

This is especially true for the United Arab Emirates, with the country’s economy growing by more than 6% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

There’s a lot on the table for the UAE hospitality sector, quite literally, if the growing number of new fine dining restaurants is anything to go by. Licensed restaurants in the country must be part of a hotel, with some exceptions in the DIFC financial district, so this is a vital business link.

And as always in this part of the world, the competition to be the most flamboyant and lauded is already high, as evidenced by the competitive spirit on display at the inaugural UAE Michelin Guide Dubai Awards a few months ago.

In the capital Abu Dhabi, three of its restaurants were recognized with one star: Antonio Guida’s Talea, for its “Cucina di Famiglia” or family-style Italian cuisine; Hakkasan, a restaurant that celebrates traditional Cantonese flavors; and ultra-modern Japanese restaurant 99 Sushi Bar, notable for creations such as king crab leg au gratin, with wasabi, tobiko and yuzu mayo.

Just up the road from Dubai, Abu Dhabi’s bustling neighbor and unofficial rival, eleven impressive Michelin-starred restaurants served up, including the upscale Italian restaurant Armani Ristorante located at the base of the city’s most famous venue, the elegant Burj Khalifa.

Chef Giovanni Papi confirmed to CNBC that this year’s accolades from the likes of Michelin have been attracting foodies, both locals and tourists. “Since our last recognitions and awards, we have seen an increase in gourmet guests,” he said.

Armani Ristorante’s kitchen currently offers an ambitious truffle-themed tasting menu starting at Dh949 ($258) per head, or Dh1,559 with wine pairings. It includes complex dishes such as Bottoni Ripieni, consisting of button-shaped ravioli filled with lamb and braised artichokes, Castelmagno cheese fondue and lamb ragout.

Although there are officially no Michelin three-star restaurants in the UAE yet, in November there were three Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire stopping by his restaurant Pierre’s TT at the InterContinental Dubai. The French maestro is a regular visitor to Dubai and has been one of the most serious global chefs setting the gastronomic agenda in the emirate.

For a few nights only, wealthy guests sampled creations such as pan-seared calamari with black garlic, mushrooms and arugula.

Gagnaire commented at the event: “The food scene here is rapidly developing… this visit amazed me to see the remarkable achievements the country has made in developing food craftsmanship so exquisitely and it cannot there is no place more inspiring than Dubai for a restaurant.”

Michelin bosses agree, saying the UAE is now on par with major global gourmet destinations such as Paris, New York, Singapore and London.

“The selection criteria for all Michelin Guide restaurants is the same as our global standard review process, where anonymous inspectors review all kitchens and assess only the quality of the dishes,” said Gwendal Poullennec, international director of Michelin Guides, on CNBC.

“We would say that the restaurants in the Michelin Guide selection in the United Arab Emirates are equal to those in the big cities.”

Local cuisine?

However, for some local foodies there is a fly in the ointment: the fact that although this year’s Michelin selection included cuisines from all over the European and Asian continents, not a single restaurant in the United Arab Emirates specializes in cuisine from the The Middle East received one star.

Speaking to CNBC, Samantha Wood, founder of the popular unbiased restaurant review website FooDiva.net, commented: “The UAE’s heavy reliance on imported products, despite a growing selection of local ingredients is a detriment, which it relates to the high price of restaurants here. “However, what is more disappointing is that some restaurants that maximize our local bounty are not recognized in the Michelin guide.”

Wood added: “Of the 11 one- and two-star restaurants in the Dubai guide, only two are independent chef-led concepts, despite the huge pool of talent here. It’s these restaurants that Michelin should recognize the most level, rather than focusing on imported concepts from celebrity chefs available anywhere in the world.”

Best value awards

There was recognition of Middle Eastern cuisine among the Michelin Bib Gourmand awardees, a category for restaurants that offer a three-course gourmet experience with an average price of 250 dirhams. Winners include home-style Levantine restaurant Bait Maryam and Al Khayma, which offers rustic Emirati cuisine.

Interestingly, restaurants with the Bib Gourmand distinction have created a successful niche for themselves. Far from being sub-Michelin places, they are being enjoyed as Instagrammable spaces for a special dining experience, perhaps without the austerity of the Michelin star label.

A good example is Fi’lia on the 70th floor of the glamorous new SLS Dubai hotel. This trendy restaurant offers “fresh ingredients from the wood-fired oven and grill, handmade breads and pasta” with a distinctly upscale flair. Think gnocci and caviar with rosemary butter and 1kg salt-crusted branzino.

The management of Fi’lia seems more than happy with its gastronomic classification.

“Our goal was never to aim for a Michelin star, and we’re quite realistic about that,” Claudio Cardoso, culinary director of the SLS Dubai Hotel, told CNBC.

“Having a Bib Gourmand, on the other hand, really reflects what Fi’lia has always been about, affordable dishes with good quality ingredients. It’s about good food that people can relate to… like our mothers used to do.”

And with this culinary boost for the UAE travel sector, leaders have announced plans to supercharge the tourism sector and increase its contribution to national GDP from the current UAE Dh177 billion to a whopping Dh450 billion. dirhams in 2031.

According to Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri, Minister of Economy, the strategy envisages attracting investments worth 100 billion dirhams and bringing 40 million hotel guests to the region.

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