Gourmet cuisine in the United Arab Emirates is conquering Paris, New York and London

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

Giuseppe Cacace | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – While the economic outlook for much of the world will be rocky in 2023, the mood in the Gulf is optimistic.

This is partly due to the lucrative football frenzy in Qatar, but also because the region’s tourism sector has never been so good.

This is particularly true for the United Arab Emirates, whose economy has grown by more than 6% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

There’s a lot on the table for UAE hospitality – literally, if the proliferation of swanky new fine dining restaurants is to be believed. Approved restaurants in the country must be part of a hotel – with a few exceptions in DIFC’s financial district – so this is an important business connection.

And as always in this part of the world, the competition to be the most extravagant and acclaimed is already fierce – as evidenced by the competitive spirit expressed at the inaugural Michelin Guide Dubai awards in the United Arab Emirates a few months ago.

In the capital, Abu Dhabi, three of their restaurants have been awarded one star – Talea by Antonio Guida for its ‘cucina di famiglia’, or family-style Italian cuisine; Hakkasan, a restaurant that celebrates traditional Cantonese flavors; and the ultra-trendy Japanese restaurant 99 Sushi Bar – notable for creations like whole king crab legs au gratin with wasabi, tobiko and yuzu mayonnaise.

Down the road in Dubai – Abu Dhabi’s boisterous neighbor and unofficial rival – an impressive eleven Michelin-starred restaurants include fine-dining Italian eatery Armani Ristorante at the base of the city’s most iconic landmark, the towering Burj Khalifa.

Chef Giovanni Papi confirmed to CNBC that Michelin awards this year have attracted wealthy foodies, both locals and tourists. “Since our last recognitions and awards, we’ve seen an increase in gourmet guests,” he said.

Armani Ristorante’s kitchen is currently presenting an ambitious truffle-themed tasting menu that starts at 949 dirhams (US$258) per head – or 1,559 dirhams with wine pairing. It includes intricate dishes like bottoni ripieni, consisting of button-shaped ravioli stuffed with braised lamb and artichoke, Castelmagno cheese fondue, and lamb stew.

While the UAE does not officially have three star Michelin restaurants yet, three Michelin star chef Pierre Gagnaire stopped by his restaurant Pierre’s TT at the InterContinental Dubai in November. The French maestro is a regular visitor to Dubai and has been one of the more serious global chefs to set the gastronomic agenda in the emirate.

For just a few nights, well-heeled diners sampled creations like fried squid with black garlic, Parisian mushrooms, and arugula.

Commenting at the event, Gagnaire said: “The food scene is evolving rapidly here…I was struck by this visit to see the remarkable achievements that the country has achieved in developing food craft so exquisitely, and there can be no place more inspiring than Dubai for a restaurant.”

Michelin chefs agree, saying the UAE is now on par with the big global gourmet destinations like Paris, New York, Singapore and London.

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

“We would say that the restaurants in the UAE Michelin Guide selection are on par with the big cities.”

Local cuisine?

For some local restaurateurs, however, there is a downer – the fact that while this year’s Michelin selections included cuisines from across Europe and Asia, no restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine was awarded a star in the UAE.

Speaking to CNBC, Samantha Wood, founder of the popular unbiased restaurant ratings site FooDiva.net, commented: “The UAE’s heavy reliance on imported produce, despite a growing choice of local ingredients, is a downside – which is linked to the high prices of restaurants here. Even more disappointing, however, is that some restaurants that maximize our local bounty are not listed 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 talent pool here. It is these restaurants that Michelin should recognize at the highest level, and not focus on imported celebrity cooking concepts that are available anywhere in the world.”

Best awards

Among the Michelin Bib Gourmand award winners was recognition for Middle Eastern cuisine – a category for restaurants offering a three-course gourmet experience at an average price of 250 dirhams. Winners include home-style Levantine restaurant Bait Maryam and Al Khayma serving rustic Emirati cuisine.

Interestingly, Bib Gourmand restaurants have carved a successful niche for themselves. Far from being awarded a Michelin star, they are enjoyed as Instagram-worthy spots for a special dining experience – perhaps without the rigor of the Michelin star.

A fine example is Fi’lia on the 70th floor of the glamorous new hotel SLS Dubai. This trendy restaurant offers “fresh wood-fired and grilled ingredients, artisanal bread and pasta” with a decidedly upscale touch. Think gnocci and caviar with rosemary butter and 1kg of salt-crusted branzino.

Fi’lia’s management seems more than happy with its foodie ranking.

“Our goal has never been to aspire to a Michelin star and we are quite realistic,” Claudio Cardoso, Culinary Director of SLS Dubai Hotel, told CNBC.

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

And with this culinary boost for the UAE’s travel sector, leaders have announced plans to boost the tourism sector and increase its contribution to the national GDP from the current 177 billion UAE dirhams to a whopping 450 billion dirhams by 2031.

According to Economy Minister Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri, the strategy is to attract investment worth 100 billion dirhams and bring 40 million hotel guests to the region.

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