Where to stay
The Abu Dhabi Edition Situated on a downtown marina waterfront, the five-star Abu Dhabi Edition is sleek and sophisticated, with the vibe of an upscale boutique hotel. Accommodation comprises 198 guestrooms and 57 serviced residences, furnished elegantly throughout. Food-wise, chef Tom Aikens’ trio of restaurants are all well worth a visit. Doubles from £145. Al Bateen Marina, 00 971 2 208 0000, editionhotels.com
Dusit Thani The Thai five-star hotel is located close to the Corniche and the Eastern Mangroves, an unusual sight for a desert city. Dining options are plentiful and there’s a great spa and fitness centre. Doubles from £60. Al Muroor Road, 4th Street, 00 971 2698 8888, dusit.com
Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Contemporary beachfront hospitality fused with
Abu Dhabi’s penchant for extravagance. Located at the emirate’s mainland gateway, this five-star hotel is a ten-minute taxi ride from the Grand Mosque, and even has good views of it from some rooms. Doubles from £116. Khor Al Maqta, 00 971 2 654 333, m.fairmont.com
Intercontinental Abu Dhabi This iconic outpost of the upmarket hotel chain is located close to the Corniche and shopping malls. It offers world-class facilities and amenities, including a private beach and marina, along with a personal concierge service. Many of the 390 rooms boast spectacular views out over the Arabian Gulf. Doubles from £60. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Al Saud Street, 00971 2 6666888, ihg.com
St Regis Abu Dhabi A stunning interplay of warmth, grandeur and Arabic hospitality unfolds inside the enormous atrium of the St Regis. Centrally located on the emirate’s Corniche, it boasts one of the best beach clubs in the world – and the world’s highest suspended suite. Doubles from £110. Nation Towers, 00 44 20 3519 2700, thestregis.grandluxuryhotels.com
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the UAE. Currency is the Emirati dirham (AED). Flights from the UK take around 7 hours 15 minutes, and time is 4 hours ahead of GMT. September to March is the best time to visit, with lots of sunshine and cooler temperatures. In December, the average high is 25C.
Etihad Airways flies direct from London Heathrow, Manchester and Dublin to Abu Dhabi International Airport. etihad.com
Visit Abu Dhabi is the official tourist board for the emirate, and its website is packed with helpful information for visitors. visitabudhabi.ae
From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed Al Fahim (IB Tauris, £5.50) is a compelling autobiography about how oil wealth impacted on the city, its people, culture and way of life.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses unless otherwise stated
Al-Maskoof Al-Iraqi Welcoming Iraqi restaurant serving everything from dips, salads and kebabs to speciality whole grilled fish. From £35. Airport Road, Al Etihad Area, 00 971 2 443 3387, almaskoof.com
Bonna Annee Ethiopian stews and curries served on spongy injera bread. From £18. Al Salam Street, 00 971 2 491 2128
Meylas Lovely restaurant serving Emirati cuisine. The chbaab pancakes with date syrup, honey and cheese are the stuff of local legend. From £25. Al Raha Beach, Al Muneera, 00 971 2 444 8884, meylas.com
Mezlai Housed within Emirates Palace hotel, with an interior designed to
evoke a Bedouin tent and an airy terrace, this is a place to experience
Emirati fine dining at its best. From £55. Emirates Palace Abu Dhabi, West
Corniche Road, 00 971 2 690 7999, kempinski.com
Milas Set in a modern shopping mall, the menu here features popular Emirati classics: think rosemary lamb chops and halloumi bites. From £22. Dalma Mall, Al Wazn Street, 00 971 2 309 0003, milas.cc
Panaderia Bakery Filipino bakery/café serving a wide selection of breads, light meals and cakes. From £10. Tourist Club Area near Emirates Plaza Hotel, 00 971 5 6422 2329, panaderiabakery.ae
The Raw Place An Emirati café serving fruit bowls, smoothies, nut mylks and
juices. Swing by this colourful outpost for an açai berry shake. Juices from
£5. Khalifa Street, Al Markaziyah, 00 971 2 633 4677, therawplace.com
Royal Rajasthan Order at the chaat counter for street food to take away or
dine in on Indian classics along with some less familiar dishes, all sublimely
spiced. From £10. 5 Hamdan bin Mohammed Street, 00 971 2 635 3763
SALT Gourmet food truck serving eggs, burgers, breaded chicken and
loaded fries. From £10. Umm Al Emarat Park, Al Mushrif, find-salt.com
Zahrat Lebnan A local culinary landmark since 1983, with outposts around
the city. This, the Defense branch, offers excellent service along with their
trademark expertly prepared Lebanese cuisine. From £22.
Off Hazza bin Zayed Street, 00 971 2 665 8700 zahratlebnan.com
Food and Travel Review
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Abu Dhabi screams ‘opulence and imported culture’ louder than the F1 engines that hurtle round the Yas Marina Grand Prix circuit every year. But you know what they say about assumptions.
Yes, of course one of the world’s biggest oil exporters displays a touch of the garish, a splash of the gaudy and a hint of the gargantuan. The 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers of Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque would turn even Midas green with envy. The £2.5bn-plus Emirates Palace Hotel, furnished in gold and marble, makes Buckingham Palace look like a Monopoly hotel. And the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as the name suggests, has a certain anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better vibe to it.
But the city’s modest origins remain ever-present to anchor the glitz of the present in the reality of the past. And this contrast of new-age lavishness with barren Bedouin beginnings is nowhere more apparent than in the emirate’s multifarious food culture.
As I tuck into a hearty and delicious plate of machboos and a bowl of lamb salonat bedu at the Emirati-owned Meylas restaurant in the Al Raha Beach development, this contrast is manifest and palpable. The restaurant displays an etiquette guide, including how to eat with your hands, grounding it in Emirati tradition. You should use the thumb, index finger and middle finger of the right hand to eat – eating with the left is considered offensive.
Machboos (pronounced mak-booss) is a traditional Arabic dish of chicken on the bone, surrounded by rice so heavily spiced by turmeric, cardamom, cumin and coriander that it glows yellow, and is all the more delicious for it. And the salonat bedu, a Bedouin stew of potato, carrot and marrow with a leg of tender lamb atop basmati rice, is the sort of fare that would undoubtedly raise the spirits around a bitterly cold desert camp.
‘It’s food that you can share and pass around, like our Bedouin ancestors did in their tents when they were moving through the desert,’ Mohammad, a twentysomething Emirati dining at Meylas, tells me. He is wearing the traditional white kandoura and is sitting with five others – boys and girls – all in local dress. His English is impeccable – likely the result of a top UK or US university education – and his knowledge of Abu Dhabi’s history almost rehearsed.
Mohammad and co’s image is a snapshot of Abu Dhabi today. Set against the rusted iron door, burlap sacks-for-sofa and exposed pipework of Meylas’s interior, the young, kandoura- and burka-clad Emiratis talk, laugh, tap and swipe on iPhones, taking selfies and close-ups of their lunch to post on Instagram. The dishes they are snapping, basic as they come, evoke the spirit of a time when desert nomads needed to make plenty out of little.
Legend has it that in the 1700s the Bani Yas tribe, a nomadic people who roamed the oceans of desert across Southern Arabia searching for home, food and opportunity, heard of a booming pearl industry not far from their base in Liwa Oasis. Led by the Sheikh of the Bu Falah tribe (of the Al Nahyan family), a group from the Bani Yas headed towards the coast. As they neared the waters where pearl diving was thriving, they spied a herd of native Arabian sand gazelle – potential food for days. They followed the gazelles until they came to a halt and started slurping at the ground. To the tribe’s amazement, the gazelles had led them to a natural spring. And it was here they realised that this new territory was habitable for human settlement. This intrepid Al Nayhan leader became known as the father of gazelles. And so they named the newfound land after him: Abu (father) Dhabi (gazelle). To this day, Bani Yas island upholds the land’s native animal species, with rock hyrax, scimitar oryx and sand gazelles all protected.
I’m told the tale by a son of gahwa, the traditional coffee server in an Arabic household, beaming proudly beneath his millennial-styled keffiyeh (the traditional Arab head scarf for men). He pours steaming cups of the sweet, cardamom-based social fuel from his brass dallah (Arabic coffee pot) into palm-sized finjans (little coffee cups).
I’m sat barefoot on the floor in a recreated Bedouin tent inside the remains of Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi’s oldest building – the home of the ruling family until the 1960s. ‘And this,’ the son of gahwa continues, ‘is what would be served every night in the majlis (meeting place) in a circle to the right,’ he says, serving the person to his right. When I get my first finjan-full, the coffee is saccharine, bitter and chocolatey all at once. The combination of cardamom, rosewater and saffron, with the ground Arabica beans, infuses and fires up the palate with the most distinctive taste in all Arabia.
‘From the vociferous fisheries reeling in the day’s freshest catch to the pulchritudinous Emirates Palace, the food here dishes up a multitude of interwoven and interlinked traditions. It caters to every whim and want’
By now, our master brewer has served me three cups, despite my insistence that I’ve had enough. My heart is pulsating. I’m nearing caffeinated delirium. Finally, our host takes pity on me and explains with a wry grin that if you’re done with your coffee, you must shake your finjan from side to side for the server to see. It’s an action that comes from the days when the son of gahwa would be ordered to stuff cotton wool into his ears so he could not overhear the important conversations being discussed by tribal elders and clan leaders. The Bedouin devised a visual symbol to replace it: shaking the finjan in the air. It’s a tradition that is still practised today.
Just like the machboos and gahwa traditions, some of the best food from this Southern Arabian protrusion is born from necessity. Something the first settlers here had access to were the waters of the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by today’s Arab states).
In the disputed body of saltwater that divides the UAE and Saudi Arabia from Iran, hammour, or grouper, has always been abundant. Though that could change. Up to 80 per cent of marine species in the Arabian Gulf are under threat from overfishing, rising temperatures and changing salinity. For now, though, there is plenty. We head to Al Mina Fish Market for the freshest catch of local grouper.
On Friday mornings, more than 10,000 people cram into the football pitch-sized market on Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed port. Otherwise footfall ranges between 1,000 to 5,000 a morning. Either way, it’s packed. Fishmongers jostle and tout their prizes: octopus, giant hammour and lobsters. The fish writhe and wriggle in the cacophony. Customers bounce and bumble between the myriad ice stalls and the enticing, ‘Yes, sir! Come, sir, good fish, best price for you, sir!’ pleas from hundreds of apron-clad sellers. From one stall, I pick out a couple of plump hammour which I then take to Al Shader, one of a dozen or so restaurants annexed to the market. We ask Ibrahim, the Egyptian owner, to ‘do what you do’ with the hammour that brings a queue of fish lovers. He takes it off to be cleaned and barbecued with paprika and lime. When it arrives, it’s succulent, with a briney taste of the nearby shores and spiced just right. It has a citrussy tang with a moist, meaty texture.
Al Mina Fish Market could stand as a metaphor for Abu Dhabi itself: a panoramic diversity of colourful life that finds itself here. Like fish, like people. Baited by attractive relocation offers and prospects, many and various make their way here.
FOOD OF THE WORLD
The city’s social tapestry is rich, vibrant, diverse and at odds with many neighbouring Arab states. The UAE has welcomed migrants to its shores with open arms since it became known as the United Arab Emirates in 1971. In 2017 it housed the world’s largest immigrant base, with over 3.5m expats. Today, the UAE domiciles over 200 nationalities, with the majority represented in its capital. All of which guarantees one thing: a wonderful variety of cuisines and some of the finest little restaurants you’ll find in modern Arabia, which are apt to be found, like much of the migrant workforce that lives here, in the lesser-known districts and side streets, away from the bright lights of the skyscrapers and glitzy malls.
Take the Ethiopian restaurant Bonna Annee, in the Al Zahiyah area of Abu Dhabi’s inner sanctum, where we indulge in doro wat – a spicy chicken stew, served with boiled eggs – and mop it up with injera – sourdough-risen, spongy flatbread. This is followed by the abundant house special of six stews – key wat, minchet abesh, kekel, tere sega, tibs fir-fir and shiro – portioned out across a giant injera, for all and sundry to tear up and enjoy.
From here, not a five-minute walk away, you’ll stumble upon Al Aqssa Sweets, a Palestinian dessert haven tucked underneath a crumbling building from the 1980s. It might look innocuous, but I dare you to find a local sweet shop with a more formidable reputation for kunafa – the Arabic dessert made with a semolina dough topping, rinsed in sugar and stuffed with cheese or cream.
Al Aqssa Sweets is owned by two Palestinian brothers who’ve lived here for 20 years and like to do things the old way. They only take cash in a register that wheezes and clunks. They don’t believe in advertising, and consider ‘social media’ two words that don’t belong together. Al Aqssa is a hidden gem, and long may it be so.
Staying on the subject of restaurants that defy Google Maps, there’s one that should be on everyone’s list: the Royal Rajasthan. Here you’ll find the finest panipuris in the UAE. Served from a streetside counter, ladled with fragrant chaat masala, fresh onions, tamarind chutney and yoghurt, these 20p mouth explosions strike a fine balance between crispy crunch and big-flavour freshness.
‘It’s real food that real people want,’ co-owner of the restaurant Shanker Sadwhani tells me. ‘People see the big, expensive restaurants out here and think this is the food of Abu Dhabi, but there are restaurants like ours that make the food of the people, of all the cultures that live here.’ His point strikes a chord. Later, as we sit round a marble table inside the seven-star Emirates Palace Hotel, this notion is still present. Especially when the hotel’s signature gold-leaf cappuccino arrives. Sprinkled with real 24-carat gold flakes and costing around £14, it is a striking antithesis to the small restaurants we’ve navigated during our stay.
To many, the Emirates Palace image is ipso facto Abu Dhabi. It’s not hard to see why. In recent times, Enrico Bartolini, Marco Pierre White, Sergi Arola and Jean-Georges Vongerichten have all brought their Michelin star-winning minds, skills and concepts to some of the emirate’s grandest hotels. Le Royal Meridien, Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi are now home to some of the finest modern culinary exponents around.
One of the most recent on the scene is Tom Aikens, who has curated menus for three restaurants at The Abu Dhabi Edition, a modern five-star hotel in Al Bateen. There’s Alba Terrace, a Mediterranean-inspired alfresco option, Oak Room, a luxurious steak house, and Market at Edition, and all three speak volumes about the gourmet scene in Abu Dhabi. Market at Edition is a particularly interesting one. The UAE is not known for its health consciousness, yet Aikens has pulled together a dining concept that doesn’t use butter or cream. And, to our surprise, it’s heaving. My breakfast is poached eggs and avocado on rye bread. Green cleanse juices and orange smoothies fly out of the kitchen. But don’t pass on the Aikens-designed steak menu.
For all the swanky, acclaimed dinner joints in Abu Dhabi, Oak Room might just be the crown jewel. Glass cabinets display beef cuts like the Tower of London shows the Queen’s throne and crown. There’s a 250g black onyx striploin on the menu – my eyes can go nowhere else. Although the Irish oysters – which explode with a celery-jelly flavour for starters – are expertly prepared and delicious, the longissimus muscles its way into the spotlight. More tender than a mermaid’s caress, the striploin melts on the tongue, its velvety, salty flavour passing by all too soon.
It’s at this point, with the buttery flavour still tantalising my palate, that we remark how many dimensions of food and culture we’ve experienced in Abu Dhabi. From the vociferous fisheries reeling in the day’s freshest catch to the pulchritudinous Emirates Palace, the food here dishes up a multitude of interwoven and interlinked traditions. It caters to every whim and want, from the simple and rustic – dishes made in the way in which they have been made for generations – to the downright opulent. Grateful we are, that the Bani Yas tribe followed those gazelles with such patience to where they once chose to graze on that hallowed patch of sandy earth, from which the modern city of Abu Dhabi has risen.
Food and Travel travelled to Abu Dhabi courtesy of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi. visitabudhabi.ae
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