Dubai is what rich Indians want Mumbai to be like. It is modern, full of gleaming skyscrapers and malls. But here’s the best part: if he or she is sufficiently well-off, an Indian can feel as at home in Dubai as he or she feels in Mumbai. Most people who you are likely to ask to perform a service (taxi-drivers, hospital workers, airport staff etc.) will speak Hindi. So will many shop assistants and lots of service staff at restaurants. So you can have a fully international experience. But, at the same time, you feel at home.
It is no surprise then that so many Indians like going there on holiday and that, over the last few years, more and more rich Indians have either moved there or purchased second homes in Dubai. Nobody even seems to mind that Dubai is not cheap. Nearly everything in the shops is more expensive than it would be in India. And the hotels are more expensive than even Singapore. (I had lunch at the stunning Bvlgari Hotel but the colour drained from my face when I realised that the entry-level room rate that night was far in excess of a lakh of rupees.)
I have stayed at so many Dubai hotels over the last four years (the last time was at the ornate Versace Hotel; the time before that at the peaceful Park Hyatt) but the one I have stayed at most often is the Oberoi. I first stayed there just after it had opened eight years ago and was pleased to see when I went back this time that it was running at 100 per cent occupancy. Some of this may have had to do with the timing : the IPL was on and Expo 2020 had just been inaugurated and Piyush Goyal and a delegation were in house.
The trouble with staying in some Indian-managed hotels abroad is that though you feel at home, you always get the sense that there are better hotels you could have stayed at. The reason I like the Dubai Oberoi is that as comforting as it is to Oberoi regulars from India, it is run to top global standards. The rooms are lovely and the service is faultless.
There is the warm hospitality of General Manager Karim Bizid and the food is great. The chef, Saneesh Varghese (who launched Amaranta at the Oberoi Gurgaon), is versatile and there is an excellent Punjab Grill outpost along with a Japanese restaurant, a nightclub etc.
One reason I go to Dubai is to eat because the city has many good restaurants. They can broadly be divided into rich Indian-friendly places, many of which are branches of London restaurants. La Petite Maison, Coya, the Arts Club, Zuma, Roka etc. And then there are others that are less dependent on rich Indians.
On the whole, the Indian-friendly places are actually better than the others. But there are lots of places that don’t fit into any neat category (say, Nusret, which is only Instagram-friendly) and then there are those one-offs like Tresind, one of the world’s best Indian restaurants.
This time I went to the less Indian-friendly places. Most were surprisingly good. Hutong is part of a chain of expensive Chinese restaurants (I know the branch at the Shard in London) which follows the standard post-Hakkasan formula of dim lighting, glamorous wait staff, nightclubby décor and luxury ingredients. I thought I would hate it when I entered because the loud music made conversation impossible. (Dubai is big on loud music). But the food tries to be authentically Chinese (the Chef is from Sichuan) and the service was attentive.
My son laughed incredulously down the phone when I told him I was going to Nammos for lunch. He knew the Mykonos original well, he said, but it was the sort of club where people took off their shirts, glugged ostentatiously from bottles of expensive champagne and danced on the tables. Why would anybody want to go for lunch?
I don’t know about Mykonos but the Dubai outpost, it turned out, was a perfectly acceptable place for lunch: a sort of low-res version of London’s San Lorenzo in the 1990s. It was filled with women, had higher staff-to-guest ratios than anywhere else I went to in Dubai and served a diverse menu, half of which was stolen from Nobu while the other half was steaks. My wife and I tried both sections and were surprised to find that the food was actually quite good. Nobu-style fish Carpaccio, fried prawns, fried calamari etc. and an okay steak. There is an outdoor area by the sea but it was not a realistic option in the Dubai heat.
The two best meals I had were at restaurants that were not outposts of London places. Tasca is the first global venture of Jose Avillez, Portugal’s greatest chef whose restaurants in Lisbon and Porto I like very much. This restaurant is by the pool at the Mandarin Oriental, a perfect setting for the light menu that Avillez has created for it. We had his prawns in olive oil, a steak tartare with crisp toast and a wonderful Portuguese-style rice with veal (like a risotto). The standout course was the golden egg, a variation of one of Avillez’s signature dishes, the original of which I had eaten at his Michelin-starred Belcanto in Lisbon four years ago.
To finish, they did a superb version of the Portuguese egg tart. It is traditionally eaten with coffee, but they found that Dubai was too hot for that so they created a cappuccino ice-cream to go with it. Tasca is usually an entirely Indian-free zone but if you go to Dubai, do check it out. It is terrific.
At Osteria Francescana in 2018, Massimo Bottura, one of the world’s greatest chefs, told me that he was opening a restaurant in Dubai. He did not want to reproduce Osteria but wanted to create an entirely new place, with a beach-view (“it is Dubai so we are importing the sand”, he laughed). He was looking for the ambience of 1960s Rome with its La Dolce Vita vibe and I imagined Marcello Mastroianni, wearing sunglasses and a linen shirt and riding a Vespa.
Bottura has succeeded in creating a restaurant that lives up to that vision. Despite being located at the ghastly W Hotel, Torno Subito suggests all the fun and lightness of Italy in the heyday of Cinecitta. But what Massimo did not tell me was that he was entrusting the restaurant to one of his most brilliant chefs: Bernardo Paladini. Despite the wonderful ambience, the highlight of Torno Subito is Paladini’s food. Some of it has been jointly created with Massimo. And some of it is his own. But it is filled with joy, laughter and flavour.
Saltimbocca is completely re-interpreted with sea bass. Massimo and Bernardo went to New York and had a Lobster Roll at Chelsea market. They came back and did their own interpretation which may be one of the world’s best Lobster Rolls. Bernardo, like most Italians, is annoyed by the US tendency to serve Pink Sauce Pasta. But, he decided to do his own take on it, and used it to tell his story. He is from Rome so the dish is basically Cacio e Pepe, but as a nod to Massimo’s Modena origins, he added Parmigiano and Balsamico. Beetroot gave the pasta its colour.
This is certainly Dubai’s best European restaurant and may well be its best restaurant across all categories. The combination of Massimo and Bernardo is irresistible.
And yes, it looks even better on Instagram than Nusret!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, October 17, 2021
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