Google started in a garage.  Amazon started in an empty swimming pool.  Apple started in a cupboard beneath the stairs by a boy with a lightning scar on his forehead and a dark coloured turtleneck.

EAT DXB started in Lowe.

The other night, some of the top chefs in the city, each one of them an expert in their chosen discipline came together around a quiet table in a back room of Lowe for a few hours of food, connection, and discussion.

Artisanal chocolates, ramens, charcoal and black cod, puffed pita bread with wagyu, lamb saddle, dark chocolate caramel kibbeh, bone broth, baos and falafel.  These are the dishes these chefs produce, and yet these chefs are not defined by the dishes they make.

The invite was for a 7:30 pm Iftar. So, of course, we started at 8:15 pm.  Arriving late is a chef’s way to compensate for always having to send food out on time in their own restaurants. It’s how they balance their lives.

Jesse Blake and Kate Christou, the chefs of Lowe very kindly agreed to host the dinner – a big ask, considering the audience they were serving.  You would have thought they would roll out their most tried and tested dishes – the big hits that would have the audience raising their lighters and singing along.  No, they announced that the recipes they were serving had never been tried before.  Not once. “The flavours all work – in my head,” Jesse said, while nonchalantly seasoning something in a bowl.

David Chang of Momofuku fame tells a story of how he visited Joe Beef, a restaurant in Montreal and ended up talking to chef-owners David McMillan and Frédéric Morin at the bar.  They had never met before, but sought each other out, as like-minded individuals are prone to do.  Their conversation ended with Chang stepping into their kitchen and showing them how to cook fried cauliflower the Momofuku way.  A coming together of talent, a sharing of knowledge, an improvement of the industry.

As founders of EAT DXB, our message was clear – we must look up from our day-to-day to see the change-making connections that lie beyond.  Restaurants must serve more than just food.  We have a responsibility to contribute to a better life for everyone, and we believe in this strongly.  This is at the very essence of EAT DXB.

The menu, much like Kate and Jesse themselves, was all about contrast; The Ying and the Yang.  One of the “never-served-before” dishes was a cured king scallop with yuzukosho with iced horseradish.  It was like dunking your head into the icy waters of the North Sea – refreshing, bracing and deeply satisfying.

There is something powerful about breaking bread together – it builds trust and confidence in your fellow diners, and a special community is born if only for a few hours, allowing each person to relax and speak freely and passionately about what infuriates and excites them.  Each one of the chefs represented a hugely diverse array of experiences and yet found connection and commonality in their conversations with one another.

One of the mains we had was the lamb collar with pureed roasted cauliflower.  If the scallops were of the sea, refreshing, light and tangy, the lamb was all about the earth, full of umami, terroir, soil, and substance.

Out of the hundreds of mini-conversations that were had over the evening, one topic resonated loudly and frequently.  Support – and not just those within the industry supporting each other, although that is much needed too.

There is a need for support from the extended community as well.  Support from landlords, suppliers, and customers – the full ecosystem.  Support from government and industry reform.  Support to deal with mental health and abuse in restaurants, to develop and coach the leaders of the future, to create and innovate.  Support to find a healthy work-life balance and to make home-grown F&B a viable career in Dubai.

Jesse and Kate took a few moments to explain to their guests about their food philosophy and their ambitions for Lowe.  They spoke with sincerity and gratitude that they were able to create and innovate in their own kitchen.  They spoke of growing their own produce on site and have plans for an aquaponic system so they can farm their own fish.  They acknowledged the support they had received by the community as well.

They also explained that the dessert was designed as a palette cleanser, a soft refresher to bring the meal to a gentle end.  If that was a gentle end, then they should have written season 8 of Game of Thrones.

If the scallops were the North Sea, the dessert, sour gooseberry, sweet ginger, and persimmon was like a chemical peel for the mouth.  It was sharp, intense, and concentrated.  It was also delicious.

When it comes to support, in my opinion, the F&B industry globally, has a habit of disconnecting itself from other industries, and within itself becomes isolated and distant from one another.  The industry suffers significantly from the weight of expectation.  The expectation that restaurants are the magic bullet that will save retail, that the restaurant industry will solve over-farming, and sustainability and our world’s oceans or that restaurants can survive the crippling effects of disruptive online business models.  But perhaps most importantly, the expectation to single-handedly keep Instagram filled with content.

However, what is clear is that support is a two-way street, and people in other industries have faced similar challenges in their past.  We would do well to take inspiration from parallel industries, from overcoming obstacles,  introducing regulations, and collaborating so we can power through to a better tomorrow.

What struck me most was this was a table of highly influential individuals with talent, drive, and ambition.  More importantly, these were people with purpose and determination and a vested interest in Dubai’s F&B landscape.  If talent like this is leading the charge for local home-grown F&B, then we are in safe hands.  A new wave is coming, Dubai.

Thanks to:
Kate Christou, Jesse Blake and the team at Lowe.
Tom Arnel for hosting
And the attendees: –
Liz Stevenson, Reif Othman, Alex Stumpf, Mohammad Orfali, Scott Price, Neha Mishra, Kathy Johnston, Paul Frangie and Akmal Anuar.

Tom Arnel and I met over a good morning smoothie and a chia pudding at Comptoir 102.  It was like a one-sided blind date.   I, of course, knew what he looked like.  He was the Lord of the Flat White, the King of the Smashed Avo and the Protector of the Cafe Culture.  However, he didn’t know what I looked like, so I told him I would be reading a copy of the 1977 New York Zagat Guide and wearing tweed.  Ok, that didn’t happen.  I actually just waved at him from across the restaurant.  My tweed was at the dry cleaners.

We decided to create EAT DXB.  Not immediately, because we spoke a lot about the industry and our aspirations and hopes for it.  In fact, our conversation lasted about a year, on and off, but it all lead to EAT DXB.  Below is a years conversation, paraphrased into a single page.

The restaurant industry.  Three simple words, yet a world that is far from simple.

Dubai is home to 3.1 million people, which swells to 4.3 million during the day.  Every lunchtime, millions of meals are prepared and consumed across restaurants, cafeterias, dining halls, vending machines and office desks every single day.

It’s difficult to comprehend the number of meals needed to feed such a hungry city.  If everyone eats at least two meals a day, across 7 days, over 43 million meals are prepared, cooked and eaten by people of over 200 nationalities every week in Dubai.

It is a monster industry of supply chains, logistics, agriculture, farming, labour, and manufacturing.  It is a behemoth whose enormity is difficult to fathom.

Yet, zoom all the way down and focus on a single dining table in a restaurant and you will find a world of magic and hope.  The restaurant industry is as much about emotions and identities as it is about production lines and food chains.

The food and beverage dynamic is the heartbeat of Dubai.  It is a true reflection of the spirit of the time and place.  Dubai is a collection of districts, a melting pot of cultures and a series of moments.  It is a mass of moving parts with millions of heartbeats, stories, and memories, all colliding and crashing into one another.  Yet it is food that is our union, and restaurants are the great connectors between us all.

For centuries, we lived in village communities, that were characterised by intimate relationships, shared experiences and limited degrees of separation.  Through urbanization, all that is being challenged, and we find ourselves becoming alienated from our tribes.

However, we see the F&B industry as its own community, with the power and responsibility to contribute to a better life for everyone.  The responsibility of our industry to support and elevate our community is of utmost importance to the survival and longevity of the many elements that make up the ecosystem.

It’s time to reconnect and support local.

This is why EAT DXB was created.   A local food movement with three core values.  Celebrate, Support and Strengthen.

Celebrate the talents and efforts of the local F&B community – the restauranteurs, chefs, servers, suppliers, and customers that help create this industry that connects and inspires us all.

Support the larger F&B space at all levels with insights, events, community, time and space to allow the industry to thrive.

Strengthen our city’s offering as to establish it as a globally recognised food destination, where global and local talent is nurtured to innovate and create at the highest possible level within the Dubai F&B landscape.

We want to be united in passion, aligned in our goals and understanding of our diversity.

EAT DXB is a collection of like-minded individuals who want to make Dubai a better place, through the creation of a thriving F&B industry. With a focus on everything local; restaurants and their customers, business owners, and their landlords, suppliers, and chefs. Our community is concerned with the relationships that affect us all.

We are launching in June 2019, with two powerful events.

EAT THE CITY – June 16th, 2019.

A collaborative dinner prepared by some of the city’s most successful and renowned chefs, in partnership with students from the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA). A special set menu offering. Ticketed event with all profit going to Dubai Cares. Each course will be explained by one of the guest chefs, imparting know-how and sharing experiences of working together with his/her apprentices.

EAT TALKS – June 17th, 2019

Recognising that the food and beverage industry has the opportunity to participate in improving some of the city’s most pressing challenges. A speaker lead event featuring key F&B change makers from Dubai and the broader region.

EAT TALKS is an industry and consumer event and will appeal to all with a social conscience and appetite for exploring the best ways of working.  Chef and owner of Bull&Roo cafes & restaurants Tom Arnel will play host to the first significant gathering of EAT DXB.  A speaker line up of chefs, restaurateurs other critical parts of the food puzzle will contribute with informed discussion on food in the city now and in the future.

The food community of Dubai is coming together for EAT DXB.  Engaging discussions, events, and activations promoting creativity, curiosity and shared know-how between different parts of the food ecosystem.

Join the change makers and trend avoiders; a group of like-minded individuals who aim to make Dubai a better place, one meal at a time.

Save the dates, ladies and gentlemen.  Booking details and full speaker line up to be released very soon.

Back in 2006, Jumeirah Beach Road underwent a “Beautification” upgrade.  Little did we know that it would become a strip heavily dedicated to boutique concept stores, health-driven cafes, cosmetic and dental clinics, and posh chocolate and flower shops – which is everything you need to be beautiful, right?

Mad Tailors is part café, part restaurant.  The all-day breakfast items scream café culture; however, the tapas and Mad mains show a more serious restaurant side.  Time will tell whether it can balance both genres.

The Serb and I visited early one chilly April evening and through positive thinking en route, managed to snag street parking right out front.  Life is good on the Beach Road.

There is a large, illuminated “X” hanging from the façade of the building with a small outdoor seating area.  The temperature was below 26 degrees, and The Serb demanded we sit inside as she had left her Northface Thermoball Arctic jacket at home.  Inside Mad Tailors are around 15 tables, making a small but cozy space that wouldn’t be out of place in a hip residential neighbourhood of New York.

According to their Facebook page, Mad Tailors is inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and serves intimate MADiterranean food.  The décor is rough-luxe, and the distressed walls are brought to life by an ethereal, ghostly chandelier in the center of the room.  The dining room is framed by an arresting brass metalwork arch that gives the restaurant a new age renaissance cathedral feel.  The coffee counter at the head of the restaurant has an altar-like quality to it, backlit with an ecclesiastical glow.

Mad Tailors is the creation of Fad Jokhadar, a Syrian/Greek interior architect who has emphatically stamped his distinct personality into this restaurant.

The man behind the menu is the very talented Mohammad Orfali who is what I call a thinking chef.  Not only does he whisk and flip and broil and bake, but he also seeks out knowledge and understanding of cuisine and culture as well.

Chef Orfali also partners with other culinary talent, using Mad Tailors as a pop-up playground for him and his chef friends.  He has partnered with Omar Rodriguez from Slab and Reif Othman from Play and Zuma for various pop-up dinner events and you should definitely keep an eye out for future collaborations as well.

(On a side note, Chef Reif is a busy man at the moment and has been associated with roughly 80% of all GCC restaurants recently.  Rumour has it he has managed to clone himself, hence being able to be in Beirut, Dubai, and Egypt seemingly simultaneously.  Either that or Mad Tailor’s Cathedral Archways create a portal to the Quantum Realm.   Yes, I did just watch Avengers Endgame.  I’m not crying.  You’re crying.)

Mad Tailors wasn’t busy when we entered, and we were  quickly shown to our table by a welcoming waiter.  The manager on duty was energetic, switched on, and she gave Mad Tailors a good neighbourhood restaurant feel to the place.  I like managers that have a waiter’s pad in their back pocket, ready to take an order themselves, rather than politely offering to “fetch my waiter for me.”

The menu teeters between progressive and conservative.  Dishes like the baby gem pistachio were inventive and refreshing, but the chicken avocado salad is a reminder that they still need to serve “commercial” food.  Overall, the menu is a robust bistro menu with some bright flavour combinations, like horseradish and salmon, and chicken with truffle crumbles.

From the tapas section, we ordered the Patataes and the Cordon Bleu croquettes.  We decided to opt for a salad and mains to share.  We ordered the Halloumi & Herbs salad, or as the Serb calls it, the squeaky cheese salad.  For the mains, we went with the beef stroganoff, which, as everyone knows, was Michelangelo’s favourite TV dinner after a long day of upside-down painting.

We also ordered the sourdough bread as well, because I suffer from Carb FOMO.

Have I told you how much I enjoy balls?  Well, ball-shaped foods more specifically.  Arancini, cheese balls, Xiaolongbao – stick anything in a ball shape and I’m in.  The cordon bleu croquettes arrived, dutifully following the unwritten rule that food must be served in odd numbers only. Three little crunchy balls filled with a rich, creamy chicken and cheese puree, topped with a mushroom mayo.

The patataes, (which is how you say potato if you’re a frightfully posh Surrey farmer or from Boston), were triple cooked fries and delicious.

The halloumi and herb salad was fresh and spritely and the herbs combined to create a choral symphony of flavours in my mouth.  The coriander played off the mint, that gave way to the parsley that allowed the halloumi to squeak falsetto, as halloumi is prone to do.

Although not an obvious choice for a MADiterranean food direction, the stroganoff was rich, thick and well balanced.  The beef was tender and soft, and although the dish appears to be simple comfort food, it requires several hours at the stove to get it right.  The sauce has to be slightly tangy, which is where a dollop of sour cream comes in and the seasoning requires a delicate hand.  Mad Tailor’s kitchen got it right – it was a delicious and generous portion.  However, as a winter comfort dish, I am not sure how it will fare the coming summer months.

We finished off with a Chocolate Mille Feuille and the lovely manager brought over a complimentary Torrija as well.  The Torrija is a Spanish French Toast and was head and shoulders better than the Mille Feuille which should have been delicate and light but unfortunately wasn’t.  The Torrija brioche bread had a crème Brulee style shell which gave a satisfying crack each time you took a spoonful.  It was a heavy dish, and one we couldn’t finish after our equally heavy stroganoff – not if we wanted to walk out with any grace and dignity anyway.

Mad Tailors, is a 40-seater restaurant that proves you don’t need to be highly polished to be beautiful, especially on Jumeirah Beach Road.

 

Mad Tailors
Dinner for two – 350 AED
04 2557255
Opposite Mashreq Bank,
Jumeirah Road,
Umm Suqeim

 

Mad Tailors Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

One more thing – I’d like to invite you all to my Facebook Group. It’s different than a regular Facebook page. It’s more interactive, and personal. It allows you to see fresh content quickly and directly. It allows you to cut through all the unnecessary social media noise. Be a part of a food community where you have access to reviews, articles, supper club invites, The 86 food journal and much more. Click below and be a part of community where humans and food connect.

https://www.facebook.com/groups/FoodSheikh/ 

Just by looking at the number of food delivery drivers zipping between cars and darting around the communities of Dubai, you know that food delivery and third-party apps have made a massive impact on how we consume our food.

According to a recent KPMG report, 60% of UAE consumers use a food app on their smart phone.  There is no doubt about it – food delivery has become part of our everyday lives.

If you were to believe a recent Capital Economics report, 3rd party apps are contributing positively to the F&B industry.  According to Capital Economics, a company specialising in both commissioned and independent economic reports, Deliveroo is supporting 3,200 jobs across the UAE and providing 399 million dhs of incremental revenue for the restaurant sector.

However, I’ve spoken to many local restaurateurs about this situation, and they tell a very different story.

If you go beyond the façade of convenience and instant gratification, there is an argument that says third-party delivery apps are slowly destroying the restaurants we love.  In fact, one local restaurateur, who preferred to remain anonymous, describes them as aggressive, arrogant and heartless.

For smaller restaurants that run on incredibly tight profit margins, it paints a desperately sad story.

Here’s how it works.  All the third-party delivery companies reach out to as many restaurants as possible and offer their services.  The objective is to be the platform with the most choice and variety.  The ordering, payment and delivery service is known as the “full stack” solution.  With some platforms, you can take their delivery option or not, with others, the full stack is the only option.

They all want you to sign exclusivity, meaning you can’t be listed with anyone else.  To encourage that, they offer you a lower commission rate of 25%.  If you don’t sign exclusivity, it will be 30% commission or upwards.  In some cases, restaurants lose money on these orders.

David Chang, from Ugly Delicious and Momofuku, said of this subject, “I think it’s fool’s gold for the restaurant owner. The reality is, you’re only helping out the delivery company. You’re not helping out the restaurant.”

Then, because the app’s listings are a hot mess of thousands of restaurants, some real, some just kitchens, it becomes almost impossible for the consumer to make any meaningful choice.  So, it becomes a sterile, price-driven marketplace – each restaurant is encouraged to offer more and more discounts to get noticed and obtain orders, and the survivors are the ones who can control their margins better.

One restauranteur I spoke to likened it to being a drug addict.  As a restauranteur, you become dependent on an income stream that might ultimately be running you into the ground.   It’s also worth noting that despite crazy growth and high revenue streams, most delivery platforms are not profitable yet.  There is a hope that through sheer volume of restaurants and orders, profit will eventually come.  (An indicator of this is that already these companies are looking to diversify into running their own kitchens – perhaps as a further attempt to find profitable revenue streams)

The combination of an industry that has very thin margins with an industry that has upside-down margins is not a wise or healthy combination.

Another local restaurant owner said, “These are platforms owned and run by tech experts or accountants who only see numbers without feeling or connection.  The amount of sweat and blood, people with families, depend on this craft and life.  It hurts me as a restauranteur, seeing my fellow restaurant owners suffering like this.”

As the income of these restaurants gets chipped away by commission and discounts, they are forced to take measures to merely survive.  It is this state of survival that is doing the most damage to our industry, in my opinion.  Restaurants will compromise on ingredient quality, reluctantly ordering cheaper and cheaper ingredients to make their margins.  They will spend less on marketing, relying on their exploitative delivery partners to bring them customers, thus making them even more dependent on them.  They will hire the cheapest of labour, thus diminishing their service standards.  They will cook and produce food that is commercially safe, thus killing creativity and innovation and all that will be left are functional food spaces that are barely holding on.

Let’s not mention the amount of plastic used in delivery.  A container for the salad and another one for the dressing.  One for the croutons and one for the grated cheese.  Such irresponsible waste, but it costs money to use ethical packaging, and when your margins are so low, you have to choose the cheap plastic that kills our planet.

It seems to go deeper and deeper the more I talk to restaurant owners.  With the rise of these so-called virtual kitchens, restaurant operators are effectively handing over their recipes and know-how to these companies.  One 3rd party delivery company is now offering what they call “food brokerage” where they negotiate bulk deals to get restaurants cheaper prices from suppliers.  Sounds great, but in reality, you are handing over your entire supply chain to them, and at some point, you have to question what part of your business are you left controlling? So, I ask the restaurateurs of Dubai, do you want to be the operator that these companies learn from, for them to be your direct competitor tomorrow? Actually, let me correct that – they’re your competitors today.

So, are these online delivery companies good or bad for restaurant business?  Why do so many restaurants sign up with them if they are so bad?  These are valid questions, and there are obviously some advantages to partnering with the third-party delivery guys.

To illustrate this, a restaurant boss I spoke to claims that if he doesn’t use these delivery platforms, he would have to shut his doors tomorrow.  Another restaurant went from almost zero delivery orders to over 1,000 in their first month of signing with a 3rd party delivery company, so clearly there are positives to come from this kind of partnership.  Furthermore, they have an enormous audience reach and have invested billions into logistics and technology infrastructure, and it is clear there is an optimal way to benefit from them.

However, I think the advice is never let them overtake your own in-house and take away business, which must remain your priority.  Develop a strong brand first, with a good following and the delivery platform should just enhance your existing business.  If your biggest customer is that electronic device that feeds you anonymous orders, then you need to re-work your business model because you’re heading for trouble.  Restaurants have already lost their direct connection to their customers, so they need to think twice about handing over access to their recipes, techniques, and supply chain.  These are what makes them unique and special.

Finally, if you have been paying attention over the years, you will know that I am a big advocate for community dining – I believe restaurants are the lifeblood of a community.  It is where I learnt my trade, where my family celebrates milestones and where countless stories and memories are made.  So again, I urge you to support local – visit your favourite restaurants and allow them the financial resources to re-invest into their businesses and community with training and innovation and expansion.

#SupportLocal.

 

 

There are two sides to a city.  The public side and the private side.  The public side is what the tourists, investors and other governments see – The Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, desert safari, free zones, sports tournaments, etc.  This public side of Dubai is critical to generating tourism spend and foreign direct investment.

However, the private side of a city is that which is experienced daily by the city’s residents.  Our communities need to deliver on this, on everything that makes living in a city a pleasure.  It is intimacy, human scale and the relationships people have with their districts that make a city truly liveable for its residents.

Enter stage left, Lowe restaurant at KOA Canvas, a new development out past Al Barari and the popular Farm restaurant.  I love pulling off the 311 onto that single-track lane surrounded by mature hedgerow and foliage.  It reminds me of the single winding lanes of Devon in the UK, except you don’t have to worry about a slightly tipsy farmer coming the other way after a few pints of IPA at The Maltster’s Arms.  Just someone tailgating millimeters behind you, flashing their headlights like they’re at a car rave.

Lowe is a dining all day neighbourhood restaurant.  A restaurant that has a story, some purpose, and character behind it.  Headed up by New Zealand and Australian chefs Jesse Blake and Kate Christou, and real estate developer Mohammed Zaal, who believes his communities should contribute to the soul of a dynamic new Dubai.

Lowe means a warm light, especially one produced by fire and the menu showcases seasonal produce cooked naturally by fire.

I followed the directions of The Serb, who has got much better at navigation since she agreed to give me at least 15 meters warning before announcing any turns or exits.  Eventually, we arrived from the jungle depths and approached the gates of KOA Canvas, a new mixed-use residential development that promises to be a collaborative hub for creatives and home to Lowe.  In keeping with the whole fire theme, the security guards gave us a proper grilling before we could enter.

“Good Evening, Sir.”
“Hello, we’re looking for Lowe restaurant.”
“Do you have a permit pass?”
“Permit pass? No, do we need one?”
“No. Welcome,” and with a wave of his arm, the barriers lifted.

We pulled into an empty car park and walked the short distance to Lowe.  The open kitchen greets you as you enter with a charcoal grill, rotisserie and wood-fired oven sitting proudly front and center.

The restaurant is empty when we arrive, and the hostess has the common sense and dignity not to ask us if we had made a reservation.  Instead, she gave us a warm, welcoming smile and walked us into the dimly lit restaurant and showed us our table. The interior is Scandinavian Chic, clean lines with smoothed grey concrete and lots of wood and rattan.  With just 75 covers, it is warm, welcoming and intimate and will age well with time.

The menu is sharing plates, of course, so I crack on and order far too much food without consulting with The Serb.  It’s often better to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission.  I ordered some cucumbers, whipped aubergine, duck salad, roast chicken and charred cauliflower.  The Serb threw in the French fries at the end.

The menu is honest and clean and straightforward.  It is transparent in the sense that it is ingredient led, rather than technique heavy.  The menu has a clear focus on local produce, seafood, and vegetables with big earthy flavours coming from influences around the globe.  The service team was led by a very active and engaged manager, who I think took almost every single food order himself personally.  Such was his efficiency, half the staff could have had the night off.  I bet they can’t wait until they are busier, so they get to take some orders as well.  

The pressed cucumbers were fresh and lively, with a slight sourness that danced on the tongue.  Dipped into the smoked labneh and they became crudites extraordinaire, a delicious sharing dish that was gone before we realized it.

Aubergine is a vegetable (well, technically a berry) that I have a hard time building a relationship with.  Although I often order Baba Ganoush, it’s because I like saying the word, rather than because of any enjoyment I get from the dish itself.

However, Lowe’s whipped aubergine with puffed grains gives me hope that there is a future for me and the eggplant.  It was bloody delicious, a little airy cloud of aubergine, soft and dreamy in the mouth.  The crunch of the grains kept you grounded, and the drizzle of pepita oil added depth.  It was one of my favourite dishes.  The Serb liked the bread that came with it.

We also ordered the broken wheat salad, with crispy duck leg toasted seeds and spiced labneh.  I would imagine that this will be their most popular dish.  It was well balanced with great flavours – hearty, but not too heavy.

The cauliflower is the Skrull of the vegetable world.  It is incredibly versatile and can mimic a whole range of other foods, from rice, to puree, to even pizza bases.  Its neutral flavour also means it plays well with others too.  Lowe’s cauliflower, however, is dug from the ground, rinsed under a tap and charred over a naked flame.  It is served with a coriander yogurt and golden raisin chimmi.  However, it’s far too big for two people to eat alone, especially if one of them filled up on bread and wasn’t hungry anymore.

The chicken arrived last, glistening straight off the rotisserie, juicy, moist and tender.  It was the dish that had the mildest flavour but was brought to life by their deep emerald green garden sauce.

Landlords take note – this is the future of neighbourhood dining.  As communities, we’ve lost touch of our neighbours.  Due to urbanisation, the web & the third-party delivery guys, social media, and the globalisation of products, we have rendered ourselves alienated from our communities.

It is places like Lowe that offer hope that all is not lost in community dining.  They tick so many boxes that it makes me want to cry.  I won’t though, because that would be dramatic and utterly unnecessary.  The food was spot on, the timing and sequence of service was without fault, the staff were trained and enthusiastic and the pricing was considerate to the fact that most of us are broke this year.  All in all, a strong all round game.

So, I say directly to Mohammed, Jesse and Kate if they are reading this, stay the course, see this through and be part of the change that’s happening in Dubai’s F&B scene.

And to the others reading this, please go down there and spend some money with Lowe.  They deserve it, Dubai needs places like Lowe and you don’t need a permit pass, I promise.

 

 

Lowe Restaurant
KOA Canvas, Wadi Al Safa 3
Dinner for two – 295 dhs

NB- I stole some images from Lowe’s facebook account. You can probably guess which ones!

Lowe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I recently went for lunch with the Serb to a new place on Beach Road that looks like the love child of Comptoir 102 and Al Serkal Avenue.  A repurposed villa with some beautiful design detailing.   However, this isn’t a review of the lunch we had.  Our lunch was unfortunately farcical.  It was missing serious fundamentals of service and hospitality, and it just wouldn’t be fair to review it as it was.

Obviously, they were newly opened, and at the end of our ordeal, I asked how long they had been open for business.  The dreaded “we’re in our soft opening” reply came back at me from a waitress clearly out of her depth.  I asked what the difference would be once the soft opening period ended.

“We’ll have more staff and a new menu.” She said.  I nodded as if that made sense.  It didn’t, though.

I paid our bill, (420 dhs for two) retrieved my camera lens cap from the pot wash after the waitress had cleared it for some reason and left that beautiful villa behind along with a little piece of my soul.  My only suggestion for them is to close the doors for a few more weeks of training.

There is “soft opening,” and then there is simply “not fu*&@#g ready.”

This got me thinking about the restaurant industry’s’ “soft opening” claims.  It is unique to the hospitality world – I can’t think of any other industry that does anything similar.

Imagine a soft opening in the theatre.

“Welcome to our Broadway musical of The Lion King.  We’re in our soft opening, so the cast might not remember all the words, and we skip a few scenes as well, including the bit where we lift Simba up on that big rock.”

I’ve done many soft openings in the past, and they should be used to iron out any operational issues, and hopefully minimise any cock-ups when we open.  They also give the team a bit of confidence, so they don’t end up shaking in the corner on opening day.  All the training and testing and menu development should have been done pre-soft opening.  A restaurant’s soft opening is about tweaking and perfecting, and it is of utmost importance to do it correctly.

In an ideal scenario, there will be two days of “friends and family,” partly as a way to celebrate a little as it gives the team an opportunity to show off their new restaurant.  It also minimises the risk of lawsuits in the case of food poisoning.

Often, restaurants also invite the contractors, project managers, designers, etc who played an important part in building the place.  This helps when the dimmed lighting system starts acting like it’s a schizophrenic nightclub, as they have the right people there to fix it.

Then they run three days of dry runs, where they operate an invite-only guest list, and in exchange, they ask for honest opinions and feedback about everything, from the service, food & bathroom cleanliness to perceived value for money.  Each session increases in covers and complexity until they are operating in the same environment that will be the norm.

All the dry runs, dummy runs, friends and family days are complimentary, and there is an understanding that in exchange for free food, there is a certain understanding and flexibility from the customers and an expectation for honest, constructive feedback.

After all this is done, a decision is made on whether the restaurant is ready to start charging full price for their product and services.  I’ve been in situations where we have had to go back to the training room after this week of soft opening because we just weren’t ready.  However, make no mistake about it, as a restaurant, if you engage in a transactional exchange, you are open for business, soft, semi or hard.

What you shouldn’t do is open your doors to the public, charge full price for the menu, request no feedback from the guests and then hope a “soft opening” excuse will allow forgiveness for a miserable experience.

Anyway, I’m off to a dentist appointment at my new local clinic.  It’s a soft opening, so he can only offer a light flossing.

Back in the 1990’s celebrity Chef Keith Floyd opened a small pub in Devon and called it “Floyds Inn” with the word ‘sometimes’ in brackets underneath.  A tongue in cheek acknowledgment that he would most likely be drinking a big glass of red somewhere on the French Riviera.

Torno Subito reminds me of the same – a translation to “I’ll be right back” in Italian is a cheeky nod that Chef Massimo Bottura is most likely in Modena, Italy – but he’ll be right back.

However, it’s important to note that this restaurant doesn’t feel like a typical celebrity chef outpost. Massimo’s name is not blazed across the entrance like a homing beacon for culinary tourists.  The menu makes no mention of him, and the staff act as if he doesn’t exist.  Massimo who? they reply when asked. The only reason you would know he’s involved is the single graphic of him staring at you as you enter.

This is manager Barbara and Chef Bernado’s restaurant.  Massimo has clearly handed the keys to his Alfa Romeo to these two.

Torno’s design is inspired by the Italian Riviera of the 1960s as seen through the eyes of Massimo Bottura.  Tucked away at the end of a sci-fi corridor at the W Palm, Torno Subito is playful, eccentric and quirky.  There are touches of Riviera glam alongside cartoonish, Alice In Wonderland style elements.

The light shades are oversized beach balls, the booths remind me of the colourful beach huts you could rent, and the floor is polished to look like a sandy beach.  I don’t think there is quite a restaurant like it in Dubai.  The designer, Dubai based Paul Bishop, did an excellent job of understanding Massimo’s view of the world, which is complex, profound and often filtered through a child-like wonder and enthusiasm.

The open and breezy seaside feel is helped by the open plan kitchen and bar, giving a beautiful flow to the space.  Being able to see the kitchen communicate and create is a magical thing.  Many open kitchens struggle with keeping the noise down, but as most Italians talk with their hands only, Torno’s kitchen was almost silent.  Except in the back of the kitchen, out of sight, it sounded like there was a parsley chopping competition going on.  Based on the tempo and enthusiasm of the chopping, these guys were some of the finalists – it didn’t sound like amateur hour back there.

Our table was served by five different people, who all were very friendly and chatty, but I like to build a rapport with one person.  It helps me connect with the restaurant and provides me with a comfort and consistency that I desperately need in my life.

One of our servers was a young Italian man who had just arrived at our shores.  He mentioned that he was worried about the Dubai summer heat.  We told him he was likely to burst into flames at any time between June through to October.  We had a good laugh about it together, but I think I saw him sobbing by the gelato cart as we left.

We ordered the beef tartare to start, followed by the Torno Subito pizza and the tagliatelle ragu.  Another one of our servers, a bright, cheerful woman from Modena, expertly sold us on a side order of a cheese stuffed baked potato, because we clearly hadn’t ordered enough carbs.

The ragu is apparently the same that is served in Osteria Francescana, Massimo’s flagship restaurant in Modena.  According to one of our friendly and smiley servers, it is slow cooked for a million hours and uses 3 hundred different cuts of beef.  Or something like that.  Torno’s ragu is not minced beef, but chopped, in the same way a tartare is chopped.  It has a creamy, smooth, silky texture as if Chef Bernardo cooked it with a velvet spatula while Andrea Bocelli and Ed Sheeran sang Perfect Symphony over his shoulder.

You can order medium or large portions of the pasta, but it is so decadent and rich that a medium portion was plenty for The Serb and me.  Mainly me.

We also got their gourmet signature pizza, because, Dubai.  The pizzas are not subtle or delicate.  They mean business.  A large sourdough base with an explosion of creamy stracciatella cheese, Italian ham and apple mustard.  Unfortunately, the ham hadn’t arrived from Italy yet, so it came with slivers of zucchini carpaccio instead.  Which also meant they remove

d the apple mustard.  It was still good, but you really can’t go wrong with bread and burrata in my opinion.

We ended the meal with some gelato, which was overindulgent and utterly unnecessary on our part. However, such was the playful nature of Torno that I felt compelled to mix a spoonful of my hazelnut ice cream into my espresso.  I took a sip and looked proudly at The Serb.  She rolled her eyes and asked for the check.

Torna Subito is a great little Italian. It has bags of personality and a serious kitchen team managing the recipes.  It’s well worth a visit, and if it was on the mainland, it might even turn into my regular haunt.

Well done Torno Subito – I’ll be right back.

 

 

 

Lunch for two – 410 Dhs
Torno Subito – W Palm
04 42455555

Torno Subito - W Dubai the Palm Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

My January media feed has been quite revealing about how 2019 is going to play out. Two things are happening that I want to comment on.

Firstly, restaurants are finally understanding the power of collaboration and experience.

Second, delivery apps are learning about the limitations they have in talking to and connecting with their marketplace.

Already in 2019, I have seen more collaboration between Dubai restaurants and chefs than I saw in the whole of 2018 combined.  It appears restaurants are finally fighting back with the biggest weapon in their arsenal – the experience.

Chef Reif has been on a mini-tour of Dubai, partnering with talented chefs in their own kitchens to bring one off exclusives events to the foodies of Dubai.  He has partnered with Chef Roberto from Waka and Craft Café, Chef Omar from Slab, the team at High Joint, Chef Luigi at Akiba Dori and the guys at Roti Rollers.

I asked Reif why he has embarked on this little food tour.  He explained to me that it was partly to remind his followers that he is still alive and cooking, but also to work with home grown brands, give motivation to a slow market, and provide some inspiration to his fellow chefs. According to Reif, it’s not about ego, but about sharing knowledge, pushing boundaries to do what they love to do and to share it with the people of Dubai.  If that’s not inspiring enough, part of the sales of these events are going to Chef Reif’s foundation that supports a school for children in Zanzibar.

Foodiva has reformatted her dine around dinner event and is collaborating with Nick and Scott from Folly et al. Chef Alex from BB Social and Chef Matt from Boca Dubai all in one kitchen, serving one delicious experience.  Chef Matt is also collaborating with Bahraini chef, Tala Bashmi at Boca for one night only.

Pitfire Pizza and Sticky Rice are mashing together their cultures to create something special and unique for their communities and Chef Mohammad Orfali and Tom Aikens are partnering up with an East meets West collaboration at Pots Pans & Boards.

I’m even getting in on it – I mixed a BK Whopper with some MaccyD fries the other day. What a time to be alive.

Jokes aside, this is super encouraging and shows the resilience and determination that the restaurant industry is known for.   Perhaps finally our restaurateurs are understanding where their strengths are; in storytelling, experiences and community.

On the other hand, January has also shown off the glaring weaknesses of the third-party delivery apps.  Over January, at least four times per week, I received push notifications for discounted delivery meals.  Get 10% off your next order.  50% off up to 20 Dhs.  Use code Eat50 for an additional 50% off.  When trying to stimulate their audience, all they have to offer is bulk discounts and brand dilution.

So, here’s the thing – when properly motivated, restaurants are exceedingly powerful.  They can stir emotions, create memories and inspire communities with flavours, stories, textures and tastes.

All the delivery apps can do at the moment is to offer discounted poke bowls and hope Netflix drops another TV series.

Ding Ding – round two.

FoodSheikh is committed to celebrating the city of Dubai and the food culture that resides here. We want to tell the very best stories, the FoodSheikh way – with honesty and a sense of fun.

We’ve hooked up with the awesome guys at Emblem to put together a little video for you. Emblem, by the way, are an awesome video production house that have all the best-looking cameras and light boxes and stuff. They’re also cool guys to work with – they got a ton of energy and ideas. They also brought shawarmas to the shoot as well. Check them out at emblem.ae

By the way, if you have a food story you think we should tell, please get in touch! Now, let me tell you about a guy I know… Salem Al Attas is part of the future. Young, educated, open minded and humble, Salem represents a new generation of Emiratis who have their feet firmly rooted in tradition, but their ambitions lie up in the stars or somewhere close to them.

I saw some of Salem’s work online and reached out to him to see if he wanted to collaborate and talk about food. He replied quickly and with enthusiasm. Salem is a creative – a muse with intelligence and humour in abundance. He is ambitious and confident and is almost always late to everything.

When I asked where we should meet he suggested Alserkal Ave. Of course. He was performing there at 7 pm – I should arrive early so we could have a decent chat. He eventually walked in at 6:59pm and gave me a hug like I was an old friend.

I have a feeling he probably has plenty of old friends. I told him I wanted him to talk about food. He said, “Perfect, I’ve got a lot to say.”

Jumeirah Village Circle is the least accurate development name in Dubai.  It is not in Jumeirah, it is not a village, and it is certainly not a circle.  In fact, for those familiar with the area, it is loving referred to as the Millennium Falcon from Stars Wars, thanks to its unique shape.  However, because of the relentless construction in that area, it’s the dusty, broken Falcon of Jakku, not polished, sleek Falcon that Lando Calrissian used to fly.

Which leads me seamlessly onto Thai food and a rather interesting story about this seemingly innocent cuisine.  In Dubai, the ratio of restaurants to Thai national is 1:53. That means there is one Thai restaurant for every 53 Thais.  Compare that to Indian cuisine where the approximate ratio is 1:1000, meaning there is one Indian restaurant for every 1,000 Indians.  So why is Thai food so prolific in a city with such a small Thai population?  There are so many Thai restaurants around the world, there are probably several Thai restaurants on Jakku too.  Why is this?

Government propaganda, that’s why.  I’m not kidding.  Using a tactic called gastrodiplomacy, the Thai Government has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages.  The Thai government back in the ’90s ran a top-level program that trained Thai’s to become chefs and sent them out into the world, to open “family run” Thai restaurants with names like Elephant Jump, Cool Basil or Golden Leaf.  I can’t talk too much about this but google Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd, and you’ll see what I mean.  Just use an anonymous internet café, go incognito, don’t stay longer than 5 minutes and head straight to the airport afterward.  I’ve said too much already.

Sticky Rice has found a home in Sobha Daffodil building in JVC, next to a restaurant called Dessert Corner, a name that is as misleading as JVC itself. (they don’t sell a single dessert item) The area is dusty, noisy, disorganized.  The entrance is a small corridor that has a 2-meter drop to a sandy wasteland that doubles as a temporary car park.  It is an odd location, but you sometimes have to go off the beaten track to find the best places.

For the first time in a very long time, my dining partner was not the Serb.  I woke up to an empty house and a note on the fridge saying, “this isn’t working,” which was weird as the fridge was working just fine.  Just kidding – she had yoga.  I invited a friend who I’ve known for around 10 years but only see twice a year.  He is the most charismatic, antisocial person I know, and the only reason he joined me was because he lived next door to the restaurant and was hungry.  Pure cold convenience, nothing else.

10 bright yellow chairs, three tables, and a small counter make up Sticky Rice.  It’s the future of sustainable dining.  Smaller dining space, robust delivery menu.  You might not agree, but it’s the truth.  No need for 400 seats over three floors of restaurant space, for example.

We walked in, and were immediately greeted by Mo, who I am guessing is the son and social media king of the operation.  He was busy photographing a new lactose-free ice cream drink, probably to include in his weekly report back to his handlers in Bangkok.  His enthusiasm and energy were infectious.  When a brand has good energy, it will always come from someone.  I think we found one of the energy sources.

Sticky Rice is apparently a family run operation – quite literally.  Their entire kitchen team is from Thailand, with Mama Amena at the helm of the kitchen.  She is supported by Maha, Maryam, Aunties Tae, Yaa and Pot, Uncle Jo, and finally Mo.  Well, that’s what they claim their names are, anyway.

My reluctant dining partner had already checked the menu online, so he knew what he wanted.  He clearly didn’t want to waste any unnecessary time looking through the menu. Pure, cold efficiency, nothing else.

We ordered the Kanon Cheep, their popular Thai chicken dumplings, to share.  We went with their suggestion of half fried, half steamed.  We followed it up with Khoa Mun Kai, Hainanese Style fried chicken and Pad See Ew, thick flat noodles, stir-fried with beef and Chinese broccoli.

Looking around the room didn’t take long.  Did I mention it’s a small space?  They have a fun lightbox stuffed with hundreds of yellow rubber ducks; apparently Mama’s favourite thing in the whole world, a few posters, some pendant lights and that’s about it.

They also didn’t put an access hatch in their bar counter, so every time they need to serve a table, they have to go through the kitchen, outside onto the street and walk back in the main door.  Charming in January, annoying in August.

The half fried, half steamed suggestion of the chicken dumplings turned out to be two full orders, which I suppose is one way of upselling.  However, they were so good, we didn’t mind.  I hate to say it, but the fried ones were better than the steamed.  Tightly stuffed and generously filled, these dumplings were little mouthfuls of flavour and escapism.

The mains arrived, and the Khoa  Mun Kai is the dish Mama has been making since she was recruited 9 years old.  It’s a simple, but brilliant dish.  Pure comfort food.  Fried chicken and rice.  The dish is actually a complete meal.   Several slices of golden fried chicken over piping hot, silky garlic rice; a bowl of clear chicken broth to sip between bites, and chunks of cucumber to clean the mouth from time to time.  It was heart-warming and delicious.

Pad See Ew is thick flat noodles, stir-fried with beef and Chinese broccoli.  The flat noodles are supple rice noodles, so slippery it’s as if they are alive in your mouth.  They are cooked in a soy sauce, and served with beef and broccoli, bringing a mouth-watering balance of sweet and umami together in one dish.

Sticky Rice is one of those rare restaurants that has more guts than glamour and more soul than finesse.  They are quirky, honest and hard working.  The food is outstanding.  We eventually left because people were waiting for our table.  Plus, my friend needed to get home, he had been out far too long.   As we walked out, more and more people were arriving, motorbikes, G-wagons, and Jeeps all mounting curbs looking for parking.  Sticky Rice may have only been activated open a few months, but they are making all the right moves.  The Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd must be very proud.

Sticky Rice,
JVC
04 580 8350
Dinner for two – 163aed

 

Sticky Rice Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I haven’t reviewed a restaurant for quite some time, because the last restaurant I visited put me into such a bleak hole of dispair that it took the Serb months to gently coax me out of my miserable existence and convince me there are still good restaurants out there.

Which is why we found ourselves in a Downtown car park, white knuckles on the steering wheel, (mine) Chapstick reapplied (hers) ready for our first venture back into the eating world.  We were on The Boulevard, a never-ending avenue of nameless buildings and restaurants, going on forever.  Well, until you find your exit.

Our destination was Kizmet, a new restaurant by the people behind Baker and Spice.  It was either Kizmet or Hell’s Kitchen, and in my fragile state, I don’t think I could handle the drama of Hell’s Kitchen.

Kizmet is in a tall, oval building directly behind the Dubai Opera house, which I have since learnt now has its own district.  We do like handing out district names in this city, don’t we?

There were Middle Eastern rugs spread out at the entrance, like some Marrakesh souk stall, with a bright, bold Kizmet sign above the door.  Kizmet, of course, means fate or destiny, but is actually derived from the Arabic word, ‘qisma’ which is basically a fancy way of saying Inshallah.

We had made reservations, but there was no need – the place was quiet – it was in the middle of the most confusing week of the year, those five days between Christmas and New Year where you have no idea what day it is or what you are meant to be doing.  We were given our choice of tables by the friendly hostess.

Kismet has two floors, upstairs and downstairs, which is generally how floors work.  We sat downstairs in the main dining room, a visually striking, but rather eclectic room.

If you asked an interior designer to put Kizmet into a box, I fear their head would explode.  There is a kaleidoscope of design elements, from the Boho carpeted staircase, to off-white hexagonal mosaic floor tiling, the black kitchen subway tiles, a little bit of Art Deco, some Miami Chic, a few Chesterfield booths, terrazzo, touches of millennial pink, indoor palm trees, and hipster brass cocktail shakers.  It’s as if Pinterest malfunctioned and created a restaurant.  But it bloody works, you know.  It is a great looking room.  Classy, contemporary and creative.

The only strange thing in the décor was the 4,000 sq meters of brown velvet curtain covering the windows that wrap around the whole building.  That’s so Ancient Rome, Circa AD70.

There is a completeness to the main dining room – it houses the seating area, and the kitchen and bar all in one room.  It is homely, intimate and unpretentious.  It is casual but refined and very welcoming and easy going.

The ordering is done in the style of Noodle House, Din Tai Fung, and IKEA.  A little stack of menu cards sits on each table, and you mark what you want yourself with a little black pencil and throw it at a passing waiter.  That’s a lie, our waiter was super attentive.  In fact, I kind of wished it was a little busier, so he would have more to do.  He did far too many slow walk-bys past our table, which puts The Serb on edge.  Something to do with her childhood.  As usual, I didn’t want to ask, and she didn’t elaborate.

Much like the décor philosophy, Kizmet’s food also doesn’t fit into a nice neat box.  Kizmet is no friend of the listings department at Zomato.  They claim that the restaurant is run on the simple idea that the ‘food we grew up with should never be forgotten.’  They clearly have never tried my mother’s marrow stew.  However, the menu is a concise list of 25 items, stealing and blending global flavours, textures, and ingredients with carefree abandon.

Apparently, the menu development conversation with Rubi El Chaer, Kizmet’s Chef De Cuisine went a little like this.

“Grilled Octopus?   Put some potato foam with it.  Yes, foam from a potato.   Just squeeze it hard and shake it fast.
Hummus, you say?  We need tofu with it.  Wait – not cubes, make them into churros.  Yes, you heard me, churros.
What’s next, Pastrami? Serve it with a potato bun.  And add some coffee jus, because f%$k it, we’re in the Opera District now.
Arancini balls?  Love it, but it needs a twist.  Throw an octopus at them.
Watermelon and halloumi salad, yes, genius, but add some chopped cactus from Mexico, because Edgar’s from Mexico and I’m from Lebanon and we are sick and tired of these walls being built!”

OK, it probably didn’t go like that, but I’d like to imagine it did.

I mentioned earlier that name Kizmet was a fancy way of saying Inshallah, and I think I know where they got that idea from.  This was apparently another conversation between the management team during planning.

“Do you think the design direction will work?”
“Inshallah.”
“Do you think the menu composition is going to resonate with the local community?”
“Inshallah.”
“We need a name, what do you think we should call ourselves?”
“Inshallah”

We chose the tuna tostada, hummus with tofu churros, pasta sheet, smoked leg, and the duck pizza.  It’s a tapas style sharing menu, which removes unnecessary formality – precisely what the Serb and I need in our relationship.

Overall the food was a triumph of fusion and creativity.  The churros were inspired – little sticks of tofu with a crunchy bite and soft fluffy insides.  The smoked chicken leg had an incredible texture and crust, with the harissa spice tingling on your tongue.  The tuna tostada was fresh, tangy and lively.  The flavours were playful, bright and well balanced for the most part.

The duck pizza was so-so, I think they could probably move towards global flatbreads, like Galettes or Pide for example, and own that space a little more.  There are a lot of people doing excellent pizza around town at the moment.  The pasta sheet dish, their version of a deconstructed ravioli, was a disappointment.  The parmesan broth turned the dish into a watery ricotta mess and trying to fish the pasta sheet from the broth was like trying to extract a bit of eggshell from a cracked egg.  Just when you think you’ve got it, it gets dragged back down again. It was a little of style over substance for me on this one.

The guys behind Kizmet have understood the mood of the market and created a real egalitarian space, where Dior is as welcome as Giordano, and flip-flops sit side by side with Louboutin.  The pricing is reasonable for its Opera District location and the service team are helpful and switched on.

Kizmet is fresh, relevant and on point.  It has restored my faith in the industry, and if this is a sign of what’s to come in 2019, then it’s going to be an outstanding year.

 

 

 

Kizmet Restaurant
Dubai Opera District
04 3388717
Lunch for two – 354 AED

 

Kizmet Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I’d like to end the year looking back over 2018, as a reminder of what was important to us, what was talked about, discussed and celebrated, both locally and internationally in the F&B industry.  I decided to put together an A-Z of 2018 as a year end review.

Thank you for joining me these last 12 months, it was a challenging year, but I look forward to a new and positive 2019, and may all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions!

 

 

 

Awards

Dubai likes nothing more than to celebrate accomplishments at every opportunity, and quite right too.  However, industry award shows have long been viewed through a sceptical lens and taken with a pinch of salt.   The Michelin guide is coming under increasing fire about their independence and relevance.  The tourism authorities of both Thailand and Korea have reportedly forked out millions of dollars in return for a Michelin Guide.  To add to the controversy, according to many critics and Michelin followers, the Seoul guide was questionable in its accolades and riddled with errors.    50 World’s best is under fire as well, for their less than transparent voting process, which has as much clarity as a FIFA World Cup bid.  The growing consensus from the food media is that the 50 World’s Best is a great list if you are European, white and male.  If you’re anything else, you better have 600k spare to host the event, because that’s probably the closest you’re getting to one of the awards.

 

 

 

 

 

Bottled Water

According to the US-based Beverage Marketing Corporation, the UAE has one of the highest per capita consumption of bottled water in the world.  A hugely debated topic this year was the menu cost of imported bottled water, which seems to get more expensive with every new opening.  I think I saw one artisanal water on a menu that had a bank-sponsored payment plan attached.  As calls for filtered tap water grow louder, can restaurants give up the healthy profit margins of imported water and respond to their customers’ needs?

 

 

 

 

 

Closures

2018 was the year of closures and not just in Dubai.  As eating habits change, and technology continues to disrupt, many establishments found themselves having to close their doors.  Some closures were neat and dignified, and others were prolonged and painful, but ultimately, the circle of life continues.

 

 

 

 

 

Discounts

We are dealing with a monster of our own making.  There is a terrible discount culture across the whole city, with restaurants finding themselves having to run multiple discount programs for an assortment of credit, loyalty and membership cards, vouchers and dedicated discount websites all eating into restaurants profit margins.  This, in turn, forces up menu price, and the vicious cycle continues.  A couple of real-life examples – one restaurant discounted almost 40% of their revenue, either through membership cards, or media and influencer freebies over the course of a year.  They unsurprisingly had to close their doors.  It’s not unheard of for restaurants to be running anywhere between 11 – 22% reduction in their revenue thanks to their discount programmes.  Surely, restaurants would be better off lowering their prices and scraping this unhealthy discount policy?

 

 

 

 

 

Experience

Today’s customer is looking for an experience they can emotionally connect to.  However, the majority of restaurants in Dubai struggle to provide experiences that resonate.  Undertrained staff, ill-conceived menus, and lazy management are the main culprits for mundane and average experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farming

Finally, farming has taken off in the desert!  From hydroponics and vertical farms in Al Quoz to oyster farms in Dibbah to rice paddies in sand fields, it seems that the desert continues to provide sustenance to its inhabitants.   Chinese scientists have already started harvesting rice in diluted sea-water with aspirations to cover around 10 percent of the UAE with paddy fields, and agreements have been signed in implement desert soilisation technologies in the Al Ain desert.  We currently import 80% of our food supplies, but the country aims to produce 60 % more food in the next 30 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Gram

Few chefs would admit to producing dishes specifically with Instagram and social media in mind, but the power of these user-led marketing tools is now impossible to deny. In a highly competitive restaurant market, getting your meticulously constructed dishes snapped and shared by a key influencer on social media can see your profit margins boom, and this is all the more likely to happen if your food has a visible element helping it stand out from the crowd. While contemporary chefs go on and on about wanting their ingredients to shine, and reflecting the highly hashtag-able concept of ‘authenticity’ through their food, who is going to say no to effective, fast-paced free advertising?

 

 

 

 

 

Home Grown

Everyone is seemingly celebrating the arrival of the home-grown restauranteurs, after decades of imported franchises and soulless hotel restaurants.  However, let’s not forget that Dubai has been home to hundreds of home-grown independents since it was a small creekside village.  A trip across the creek and a wander through the old streets of Deira and Satwa will educate you on the original home-grown restaurants.  Iranian, Indian, and Arabic restaurants that have been serving customers for decades.  Not everything is on Instagram and Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

Influencers

What a year for influencers – a prominent local chef got into a public spat with a well-known food critic, and another successful restauranteur was blackmailed and threatened when he refused to offer a free birthday party to an influencer.  Many of the influencers refuse to acknowledge they are paid or given freebies by restaurants, and the whole environment is a lawless, chaotic and untrustworthy arena.  However, love them or hate them, influencers are here to stay.  Luckily, there have finally been some governmental controls imposed that hopefully will provide some boundaries and keep some of the ‘blaggers’ in check.

 

 

 

 

 

Jugaad

A restauranteur friend taught me a word, which I think was perhaps the word of the year for many restauranteurs in 2018.  The word is Jugaad.  The Oxford dictionary definition is a “flexible approach to problem-solving that innovatively uses limited resources.”  However, it seems much more than that.  Jugaad is a new way to think constructively and differently about innovation and strategy.  It’s a way of maximizing resources.  It is about businesses adapting quickly to unforeseen and unfavourable situations in an intelligent way.  It means thinking frugally and flexibly.  However, most importantly, Jugaad is about encouraging, perhaps even demanding innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit – something the F&B industry is well versed in.

 

 

 

 

 

Kitchens

Kitchens without restaurants are becoming more and more popular in 2018, with Deliveroo launching their Editions – otherwise known as Dark Kitchens – industrial kitchens that pump out a kaleidoscope of cuisines, based on big data analysis and market opportunity. The Noodle House also created a solo kitchen, to serve its expat suburbia fan base as a delivery model and preparation kitchens provide meal plans, both pre-cooked or pre-portioned with easy to make instructions.

 

 

 

 

 

Landlords

Landlords need to focus less on lording it and focus more on becoming partners for their F&B tenants.  Profit is important, but never underestimate what a popular and successful restaurant can do to a community. It raises community well-being, creates a sense of place and belonging, and encourages residents and businesses make that place their home.

 

 

 

 

 

Market Saturation

Dubai has close to 260 people per restaurant (compared to 420 people per restaurant in the US).  There are 138 hotel projects currently underway with an average of 5 restaurants per hotel.  Dubai sees a rate of four new restaurant openings per day.  These are some pretty hard hitting statistics – let’s hope population growth and tourism continue to support this supply.

 

 

 

 

 

New Openings

Three things are certain in life – death, taxes and new Dubai restaurant openings.  Despite all the warning signs and the struggles and complaints of high business costs and over-saturation, restaurant groups are still opening spaces, still looking to steal market share, and still investing in new greenfield sites.  As I finish this article off, Emerald Palace, Bluewater, Caesar’s Palace and W Hotel are all launching their considerable restaurant portfolios.  It reminds me a little of the Mr. Creosote scene in Monty Python.  The Dubai market is Mr. Creosote, all the new openings are John Cleese and we are just a “wafer-thin” mint away from exploding.

 

 

 

 

 

Online Delivery

The most significant disruption to the restaurant industry at the moment is the online delivery movement.  This new delivery space is exploding right now.  Deliveroo, Uber Eats, CarremNOW, Carriage, Zomato, and Talabat are your culinary drug dealers, promising to scratch any itch you might have.  Whatever you want, whenever you want it.  Poke Bowl and Falafel sandwiches?  You got it.  Burger and Sushi burrito?  On its way – don’t forget to tip your driver.  The ordering counter of a modern Dubai restaurant has more screens than the launch room of KhalifaSat.

 

 

 

 

Pricing

Restaurants will start figuring out ways to serve that magical sub-150 dhs meal experience in 2019.  Since the beginning of our species, humans have been connecting and socializing around food, the collection, preparation and consumption of it.  However recently, prices have been getting quite punchy, and as a result, more and more people are eating at home.  2019 will see a significant market correction and the rise of the better-priced restaurant meal.  There is a battle raging between restaurants and online food delivery and at the moment, delivery is winning.  2019 needs to find a better balance.

 

 

 

 

Quality

Quality and lack of it has been a big topic in 2018 and will continue to be one in 2019 as well.  We are very good at hyping up an opening and a new restaurant, but the proof is in the pudding.  If we are going to be one of the most expensive eating out cities in the world, the quality of the experience also needs to be the best in the world.  Start by creating a proper career path for service workers, so they commit to this industry.  Train them, test them, empower them and hold them accountable to your standards.  Stay true to good ingredients and honest, genuine hospitality, and you won’t go far wrong.  Focus on quality, throughout the entire customer journey.

 

 

 

 

 

Rise of the Chef

Thanks to popular publications such as The 86, (haha!) there is a new found love affair with the “homegrown” chef.  There are a growing number of locally based chefs who are making Dubai their home for their culinary careers.  There has been less focus on these absent celebrity chefs and more emphasis on the real chefs that are behind the line 6 nights a week, cooking great dishes and serving great food.  There is also a super exciting movement of young Emirati talent starting to do great things in their kitchens too.

 

 

 

 

Straws

The whole #stopsucking movement really took off this year, with Jumeirah Restaurant Group, Gates Hospitality, and Freedom Pizza all committing to removing single-use plastic in their operations.  I even came up with some solutions myself in the absence of straws.  Feel free to implement them if you want.

  1. Restaurants hire extra staff with tiny ladles to pour beverages into customers mouths at regular intervals throughout their meal.
  2. You can buy your own reusable straw and keep it in your handbag or suit pocket. They can be retractable and customised, or in true Dubai style, made from precious metals and “strajazzled.” Totally made up that word.
  3. Dubai invests in a massive Dabbawalla style delivery service, that moves hundreds of thousands of personal straws around Dubai every day, with unerring accuracy.

 

 

 

 

Tribes

I believe our current culture is to actively search out like-minded people and connect with tribes that resonate with our beliefs and pleasures.  There are no longer mass groups of normal consumers, only millions of individuals, millions of small factions that share some commonality with each other, yet think differently, act differently and consume differently.

Tribes.  It’s an important word because the restaurants that will succeed are the ones that understand the importance of their tribes and communities and the role they play in them. Those operators that resonate with their neighbourhoods, identify with their tribes and connect with their customers on a deeply personal level, will win.  A restaurant needs to play a central part in a community, and operators need to understand this, reflect it and fulfill their customers’ needs.

 

 

 

 

Under pressure

The F&B industry has been under significant pressure in 2018; there is no doubt about it.  In these challenging economic times, I hope that, as an industry, we remain ambitious and positive, but do not allow greed and panic to sully the fantastic progress and advances we have made.  Being under pressure can bring out the best in people and companies, spur them on to innovate and double down on their core values and integrity.  Don’t let pressure and panic turn your ambition to greed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

VAT

We all knew VAT was coming, but for some reason, none of us really believed it would be implemented.  Sure enough, January 1st, 2018, it arrived as promised, but it took several months for people to realize its real impact on their spending.  5% on almost everything, from phone bills to electricity bills, to groceries and gas.  What I think was most frustrating was that many retailers, restaurants included, took the opportunity to hike up prices by 15-20% and hide behind the VAT excuse.  Anyway, taxes have arrived in Dubai, and they are not going anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

Women

Let’s start by calling it for how it is – globally, in the very best examples, women are underpaid, under-promoted and held to ridiculous standards.  In the worst examples, they are subject to sexual harassment and blatant discrimination.  There are always outliers, but for the most part, these observations hold true, especially in F&B.  So, please remember that any woman working in the F&B industry probably has as much, if not more grit, determination, and resolve than her male counterpart.  It is likely she has been teased, touched and tormented by co-workers and customers alike.  Malicious or not, it is the same; it happens every day, and nevertheless, she persisted.  So, I would like to shout out to all the women in our great industry – the chefs, sous chefs and commis, all the bartenders, cocktail servers and waitresses, all the hostesses, and supervisors, all the managers, and leaders that bring such balance, strength, and vitality to our industry. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

Xenophiles

Just want to mention that Dubai is a truly inspiring city for accepting other cultures, customs, and people.  The Burj Khalifa acknowledges Pakistan Independence Day and celebrates Divali, Ramadan, and Christmas with incredible light shows.  We have mosques, churches, and temples. There is even a minister of Tolerance, and Sheikh Mohammed explained that when the Arab world was “tolerant and accepting of others, it led the world.”  In a world where walls are being built, and we are being turned against our neighbours, it’s important to recognize that we are all “same same, but different.”

 

 

 

 

 

You

Collectively, You are almost 50,000 strong, you read, share and comment on my reviews, you come to my Supper Clubs, read my publications, and you have been incredibly motivating and inspiring.  Truth be told, I am constantly surprised with the commitment from my readership to support FoodSheikh, especially when there are seemingly a million other things that one could choose to pay attention to.  It would be short-sighted not to feel blessed and grateful that good people like yourself decide to read my work.   It’s been such a fun ride, and I’ve learnt plenty along the way, but I’m going to let you into a little secret.  I’m just getting warmed up.  I have so much more planned and I want to get bigger, better and more exciting.   So, please, keep being you, because you are awesome.

 

 

 

 

Zumaof…

Zuma celebrated its tenth anniversary, and I was offered an opportunity for an exclusive feature or interview with Rainer Becker, the founder.  I had a few questions, but my main one was based around a new Dubai industry word called ‘ Zumaof’  This was my question –  ‘Zuma is regarded as a legacy restaurant here in Dubai and has become synonymous with high profile success and longevity.  Consequently, regional F&B investors are all looking for the next “Zuma of [insert obscure/obvious cuisine here].”  Is there a magic formula to Zuma and what would you say to those investors and restauranteurs who are looking to create the next “Zuma of..”’  My questions were unfortunately returned unanswered, but I was asked to come and Instagram their anniversary party instead.   You win some and lose some.  Happy New Year.

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