Miss Lily has flown all the way from New York City to welcome Dubai into her warm embrace. The Sheraton hotel on SZR is home to the most recent Caribbean restaurant and bar and possibly the most festive, multicultural, multigenerational crowd of punters in this diverse city at the moment.
The Sheraton, with their hushed civility of luxury, is an odd home for the festive, egalitarian and casual inclusively of Miss Lily’s. The two worlds couldn’t have been further apart if they had tried.
Like a scene from Netflix’s The Get Down, Miss Lily’s is a small, two-roomed space that is resplendent with colours, music, low ceilings, disco balls, vinyl records and larger than life characters. It is a space that has a distinctively late night, club feel, which is unsurprising as this is a Serge Becker joint, who is much more famous for being a club owner and a scene maker than a restaurant guy. However, they have found the balance – Miss Lily’s is an intimate, lively restaurant that blends the cultural significance of the Caribbean into every nook and cranny.
However, such is Miss Lily’s popularity at the moment, with that comes a small, busy room where the smoke hangs in the air, and the air conditioning struggles to keep the heat of the jerk spices away. Miss Lily’s is not for the faint-hearted – and it’s not meant to be.
Upon arrival, one of our dining guests was already propped up at the bar, learning about how many rums they had on their menu and more accurately, how many they didn’t have. Apparently many are still on the ocean, en-route. He seemed sad to leave his bar stool and the chatty bartender.
We were taken to our seats by a friendly young lady, who led us through the small rum bar and into the back room where we were met with an almost full dining room of closely spaced tables and booths. Some of the booths were so close together that the only way you knew where your table ended was because you had no idea who the person sitting next to you was.
Our server was just the like atmosphere – lively, energetic and welcoming. He was knowledgeable about the menu, a good host and reminded me of a street hustler – in a good way. He also claimed he was Jamaican, but had a suspicious Jo’burg intonation to his voice. Perhaps, I was mistaken over the rather loud, old school Ska and reggae that was thumping out of the speakers.
A further questionable claim of his was that the Ackee and Hommus starter was a traditional Jamaican delicacy. I’m not an expert, but I don’t think the chickpea is an indigenous legume to the islands.
The complete stranger sitting next to me happened to be Jamaican, and he leaned across and also confirmed my suspicions about the dish. Yes, the tables are that close together – don’t talk about anything confidential – Miss Lily hears everything.
We ordered the ackee humus, jerk chicken roti, and jerk corn to start and waited for our last guest to arrive. After a running phone update on her whereabouts, she finally arrived, took her seat and immediately took possession of the closest alcoholic drink to her. Apparently, valet parking at the Sheraton has room for improvement.
The appetizers were good. However, the much-discussed ackee humus perhaps fell victim to exaggerated expectations from myself and my new buddy on the table next to me. The ackee fruit didn’t bring anything extra to the dish.
The jerk chicken roti was some sort of shawarma rehash. Not sure if they were a success for me. They were a little mediocre – nothing in the construction of the dish stood out.
The real winner was the grilled corn. A clever spin on the Mexican street corn, Miss Lily’s version is jerk mayo slathered, chargrilled and then coated in toasted coconut chards. It is sweet yet spicy with the soft corn kernels contrasting against the crispy coconut. It’s not the only place in the city that serves it, (Café Havana for example) but certainly the best – a stand out favourite.
As young, professional and hip urbanites, we felt we should order a selection of mains to share so we could all experience as much food as possible. Our dining partners apparently thought the table of five next to us was part of our group and ordered with them in mind as well. Our order consisted of Jerk chicken, sweet plantains, Jerk fries, pimento short ribs and a goat curry.
The short ribs were fall-off-the-bone succulent and full of umami and the pimento peppers provided a sweet, aromatic glaze to the meat. There was enough for at least four people – if that was the short rib, I’d hate to think what the long rib would be. The plantains were sweet and hot and ordered by the Serb because she likes bananas at home.
The goat curry was poor – a chunky, peasant style mix of potato, carrot, and goat, its attempts at being hearty and wholesome fell short. The goat is an acquired taste – a strong, overpowering meaty taste that gets no balance from the other ingredients.
The jerk chicken is brined, spice rubbed and slow cooked in an oven. The bird is then finished on a blazing grill, and all the marinate, and juices caramelize to a sticky glaze. The initial taste of the jerk marinade was wonderful, but for some reason didn’t penetrate into the flesh of the chicken, which was a shame. However, the bird was juicy and moist and plentiful.
Because there was a danger we still might be able to walk out of there, we ordered some desserts as well. Our endearing street hustler waiter was on hand to recommend the dark and stormy and the chocolate creameux.
The dark and stormy is effectively an old fashioned Christmas fruit cake – heavy, dense and it needed the rum ice cream to alleviate the dryness of the cake. The chocolate creameux was a wonderful quenelle of creamy chocolate mousse served with a passionfruit sorbet.
Miss Lily’s has a natural ‘joie de vivre’ and has probably provided the best overall restaurant experience of 2016 so far. It was a night of good honest food, a slightly suspicious hustler of a waiter and a catchy soundtrack.
What will stop me from going back anytime soon was the price of the bill – 70 dhs for the cocktails, 360 dhs for the ribs and 35 dhs for some frozen French fries. I checked the prices against their New York menu and of course, Dubai is at least 60% more expensive than NYC on some dishes.
I can’t deny that Miss Lily’s has bombastic charisma and some solid Caribbean soul food, but at those prices, it’s going to be 2017 before I can justify going back.