Pallavi Sangtani

The term “locals” in Dubai was always used to refer to native Emiratis. But only decades (the federal unification of the Emirates took place in 1971) into welcoming expats from all backgrounds, this very young city has begun embracing these cultures as part of its own. Pallavi Sangtani was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates and over the last 30 years has witnessed Dubai grow as a centrestage for various cuisines as well as its culinary standards evolve continuously. Growing up as a third culture kid, she travelled the world in search of new faces and flavours, but the road always led her back home. “I’m glad to be living in Dubai now more than ever as the UAE stands on the cusp of a dining transformation,” explains Sangtani who has worked on transforming food and beverage technology for the first half of her career. When she’s not working for tech startups, the passionate food storyteller writes for the Forbes Travel Guide and food publications across the UAE. Walk a mile in her shoe and discover a Dubai you never knew existed.

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Intro to Dubai

Dubai’s population is 80% expats from 200 different nationalities, which explains why Dubai is a melting pot of cuisines. With over 13,000 registered restaurants it is at par with NYC and London and with only a third of the audience base. Fine-dining restaurants in Dubai make up less than 500 of these restaurants, leaving us with more than 12,000 to discover. If you eat every one of your meals outside your home, it will take you over 10 years to get through every food establishment in the city. This leaves a lot to be desired, discovered and tried. While Emirati cuisine is technically the local cuisine of the United Arab Emirates, as a third culture kid born and raised in this country I have seen the city’s local offering expand more into the South Asian cuisines brought by the dominating populations that came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Arab nations such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Morocco. These many ethnic groups have created a diverse offering in every category of dining: the future of dining in Dubai is being written through the unique lens of this very multicultural set of people. From cafes and casual restaurants to street food and tasting menus, Dubai has got something to suit every palate. 

The Dining Scene Post-Pandemic

For the longest time, Dubai’s dining scene has focused on global and regional chains (from the usual fast food suspects to the likes of Zuma and Nobu). Its evolution started about five years ago [2018], when homegrown chefs began developing their creative output and showcasing their take on the cuisines they were cooking. After the pandemic, the global guides and experts arrived at our doorstep. In 2022, The World’s 50 Best launched its first ever Middle East & North African awards; Gault & Millau followed and it was rounded off with the Michelin Guide Dubai giving stars to 11 restaurants along with Bib Gourmands and recommending plenty of restaurants in this small city. The shift has been gradual but continuous: we’re moving towards more unique and innovative chef-driven concepts, as well as witnessing a renewed interest in authentic, street style and casual restaurants. 

One of the Best Indian Restaurants in the World 

My favourite restaurant in Dubai – the one I recommend to anyone visiting or living here – is Tresind Studio. Chef Himanshu Saini is showcasing the depth of Indian cuisine from north to south and east to west in a truly immersive 16-course, fine-dining experience. The restaurant is one of the best in the city, and as far as I’m concerned, one of the best Indian restaurants in the world. It is redefining Indian food as we know it and bringing the layers of the cuisine to the surface in a creative and innovative way, spreading awareness on the diversity of dishes in the country.

Restaurants I’m Loving Right Now

Moonrise is a restaurant that I’m loving right now. It’s led by young and talented chef Solemann Haddad who also grew up in Dubai. I am always asked what it was like growing up here, and he orchestrates a 11-course tasting menu that answers that very question, while representing all the cultures we engaged with while growing up here. Jun’s is a recent addition to the dining scene, but is already a favourite amongst my friends. It’s slightly upscale and offers a business lunch on weekdays. The dishes are an expression of chef Kelvin Cheung’s life in kitchens around the world from China, Hong Kong and India all the way to Canada. 

A Taste of Aleppo, With a Playful Twist

Orfali Bros Bistro is my favourite casual restaurant and where I immediately feel at home. The three brothers have created their own so-called “Orfalian” cuisine inspired by their home in Aleppo and the cumulation of their travels. From the Guess What? salad which marries the flavours of fattoush (a Levantine salad) with a Greek-style gazpacho, to the Shish Barak à la Gyoza, the dishes are always a delight here.

More Levantine Food

If you want more traditional Syrian food, Aroos Damascus does a great job. Al Hallab Bab Al Bahr has great Lebanese food and shisha (hookah) you can enjoy with a great view. Al Safadi is another good one with a great setting, and if you want more fantastic hummus and lamb chops, try Egyptian restaurant Al Damyati.

The Perfect Spot For a Date Night

Ossiano at the Atlantis Hotel is my spot for a romantic night out. Chef Gregoire Berger presents a seafood-driven French fine-dining experience in a beautiful setting where stingrays swim right by you in a colossal aquarium. The restaurant has ever-changing menus and hosts a lot of collaborations with visiting chefs. It has one of the best wine programmes in the city, created by Michelin awards winning sommelier Danijela Tesic.

The Backbone of Dubai’s Food Culture

While the guides and lists do their job in driving traffic to fine-dining restaurants, I like to represent what I consider to be the backbone of my city’s food culture. Bait Maryam, for example, does hearty Palestinian food and is named after the owner who’s a wonderful “mama” and runs it with so much passion making every guest feel right at home. Sofreh is this tiny Iranian kebab gem, with only a couple of tables but the most delicious kabab koobideh and jujeh kabab. Sri Krishna Bhavan does the most authentic South Indian breakfast. Dosa, mangalore buns and filter coffee is a great start to any morning. For ramen I go to Kinoya, an izakaya run by the amazing Neha Mishra, a self-taught chef who is obsessed with learning and developing her broths. At Rasoi Ghar, you’re met with utmost hospitality and served a pure vegetarian Indian thali – a large serving plate with bowls of delicious Indian curries.

Long-Time Favourites

My first taste of biryani was at the age of 10 at a Pakistani restaurant hidden in old Dubai called Pak Liyari. Over two decades later, the double masala mutton biryani here remains my favourite and costs a mere $4 for a generous portion. Streetery Foodhall is another constant and has such a Jumeirah Lake Towers (aka JLT, an 80-building development in Dubai) community environment. It contains four purveyors that specialise each in a different slice of South Asian cuisine. Khoori Special Kabab has the best Iranian koobideh in the UAE and, according to my Iranian friends, maybe even in Iran. Tibba, located deep in Old Dubai, is where I first tried mandi (Yemeni dish of chicken and yellow rice). A generation later, I continue to visit the restaurant both for the mandi and madhbi (another Yemeni dish with similar ingredients but in which the seasoning and marination differ), along with the Yemeni version of knafeh (cheese and kataifi/semolina dessert that originated in Palestine and is served warm, drizzled with orange blossom syrup) that’s creamy and delicious. I’ve also been eating knafeh at Feras Sweets since forever. I always recommend Vaibhav Vegetarian Restaurant for Indian snacks, freshly made Indian buns and Mumbai dishes like dabeli (sweet Indian snack served in a bun which originated in Gujarat) and missal pav (spicy curry from Maharashtra usually made with moth beans). I can’t leave out Al Fannah and Bu Qtair. They both fry up delicious seafood in a flip-flops setting by the fishing harbour. The spicy prawns are addictive!

Dubai’s Cafeterias

Cafeterias make up a big part of Dubai’s daily food culture. Masses of people eat at these small, cheap, takeaway spots that offer an eclectic mix of food which include a local variation of shawarma called “hassan mattar” and the most unique fresh juice mixes as well as chai [tea] of course. Cafeteria food is almost a cuisine in and by itself. You’ll find Porsches, G-Class wagons and Range Rovers lined up outside some popular ones like Al Ijaza in Jumeirah and Jabal Al Noor in Satwa.

Explore the Food of Native Emirati Homes

While some of the best Emirati food I’ve had has always been in homes, we’re beginning to see some restaurants that highlight these deep-rooted flavours. Arabian Tea House is a great spot for Emirati breakfast and where you can get things like balaleet (sweet and savoury vermicelli omelette popular in the Persian Gulf), chebab (Emirati bread similar to pancakes) and khameer (Emirati buns), or a simple plate of beef liver. Al Khayma recreated an Emirati feast in a traditional setting, and is a perfect way to sample regag bread and dishes like kingfish maragt (cooked in aromatic tomato sauce and served with rice) and lamb machboos (Emirati rice and meat dish). 

Local Favourites Under One Roof

Relaxation for me is to not have to make choices, which is why I enjoy going to food halls with friends on my day off. Neighbourhood Food Hall is a mirror to the local community, summoning 12 different cuisines under one roof. It’s all homegrown, mostly one-of-a-kind and includes Sri Lankan, Indian, Mexican and Korean joints along with burgers and pizza (two things the locals love). It’s comfort food at its best. Personal favourites include birria tacos from Tacos Los Hermanos, burgers from High Joint, prawn curry from Authentic Ceylon and lamb chops from Meating Room. Time Out Market is another great spot for some of my most beloved homegrown restaurants, great drinks and view of the Burj Khalifa all under one roof. It goes like this: Pickl for great fried chicken sandos, Pitfire for the best pizza in Dubai, and 21 Grams for delicious Balkan food (it has its beautiful flagship bistro near the beach). Or I’ll get my Asian food fix at Reif Kushiyaki.

Food I Miss When I’m Away

When I’m travelling, I always find myself craving good shawarma, so I always have one before leaving for the airport and upon returning home. One of my go-to spots is Al Mallah, a restaurant older than I am and where I’ve been having shawarma and manakeesh (Levantine flatbread) since high school. Another childhood favourite is Laffah, known exclusively for its shawarmas. Allo Beirut is a Lebanese chain that’s a relatively newer addition to Dubai but equally a good choice for shawarma. Another dish I constantly crave is butter chicken, and if I’m not making it at home, I usually get it at Sthan or Meating Room.

A City That Takes Its Cocktails Seriously

If there’s still a global misconception about alcohol consumption in the UAE, I want to set it straight: yes, it is legal to drink here and not only that but we also have some great bars, cocktail programmes and wine lists. Boca in the DIFC is my go-to for cocktails. It also has a great wine cellar – that doubles as a private dining room – with unique bottles from Syria, Palestine and natural wine producers in Penedès. Boca, as well as a restaurant called Teible, are leading the sustainability initiative in the country and working on offsetting carbon emissions associated with the restaurant. Right across from Boca is Italian restaurant Marea, which has a speakeasy called Tides in its basement. It serves some lovely cocktails including a signature Sea of Japan cocktail of sake, seaweed and shichi-mi tōgarashi (seven-ingredient Japanese seasoning) that tastes like the sea, albeit in a delicious way. Mimi Kakushi is on one of the world’s best bars lists for having some truly innovative cocktails. You can go for the bar omakase paired with its delicious cocktails. Tasca by José Avillez at the Mandarin Oriental Jumeira is another great spot for drinks with a beautiful setting for sunset cocktails. At Ergo, ex-Zuma bar legend Jimmy Barrat leads the bar experience with his unique creativity. The Bulgari Bar at the Bvlgari Resort offers a great drinks selection as well, and it is rumoured that Resonance by Heston Blumenthal, soon to open in Atlantis The Royal, will offer a molecular bar experience like never before – and I’m excited to try it!

Restaurants That Are Under the Radar

Some restaurants in Dubai still haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. Fusion Ceviche, for example, brings a taste of Peru to the city. With native chef Penelope at its helm, it serves some of the best ceviche that Dubai has ever tasted. Amritsr is a casual place that makes the food of my household. Things like chole bhature, a Delhi classic perfectly accompanied by a gigantic serving of lassi (sweet buttermilk). My friends and I frequent Nine Squares and Kimura-Ya when we’re craving a hotpot spread. Then there’s Avatara which embraces the global shift towards vegetarians-first mentality in a truly unique dining experience. The 14-course, Indian tasting menu is beautifully orchestrated by chef Rahul Rana. Teible, which I’ve mentioned earlier, is a restaurant in the Jameel Arts Centre which focuses on sustainability, local produce and farm-to-table dining. Chef Carlos has created a unique setting that celebrates a “reduce waste” ethos and a menu accessible and inviting for a casual evening out. You’ll see a lot of pickling and fermentation but only with the food: the restaurant is actually not licensed for alcohol. 

The Markets Top Dubai’s Must-Dos

Dubai’s Old Souk is a must-visit: it’s a great place to shop for dried fruits and local spices such as cardamom and cinnamon. Eastern Mediterranean herbs like thyme and sumac are local heroes too and you can find them in the spice section of the market. The colourful back streets of this age-old market are right across from the Abra Creek Crossing, where you can take an old dhow boat ride for 1 dirham (25¢). The Deira fish market is another must for food lovers. It was revamped five years ago and is now bigger, cleaner and air-conditioned. There’s lots of local fish and seafood for sale, including lobster, pomfret and prawns. The best time to visit is early in the morning to get the best catch of the day. You should also try local oysters from Dibba (coastal area in the north tip of the country), available at the Dibba Bay shack and can be sampled across many Dubai restaurants. 

Favourite Local Snacks

Luqaimat are my favourite local snacks. They’re essentially the Emirati doughnuts, a variation of loukoumades in Greece and ouwwaymat in Lebanon. The Emirati version of these deep-fried dough balls is drizzled with date syrup. Since they’re best eaten hot, I recommend visitors to try them while in the UAE at Heritage Village or Logma. Dates are a staple of the Gulf region: available in different varieties around the year and make for a perfect gift from Bateel. Other things I like buying in boxes for gifts are Arabic sweets from Al Mealim – also available at the Dubai International Airport – and Indian sweets from Puranmal or Bikanervala. Camel meat and camel’s milk are unique to Dubai. You can sample them at Emirati restaurants like Local House, but you can also grab some camel milk chocolate from the airport to take home.

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