Qbara is the word Arabic back to front. Qbara itself is Arabic dining inside-out. Its far too sassy to be an Arabic restaurant in an Arabic region. Qbara is completely out of place, and should be in Soho, La Marais or a Melbourne CBD laneway. For a start, the cocktail list is completely appealing, and defies all thought of sobriety. The lighting is too dim, encouraging shenannigans in the banquettes and upper circle majlises. The music is Middle Eastern in style, but just a little too tittilating, and has most writhing their hips under tables and on bar stools. The food is too petite. It takes all those delicate contrasting Arabic flavours and puts them in a manner almost Michelin. It takes the feasting out of the Arabic banquet and puts the finery in. It’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for.
We tried a few of the cocktails – me, the Q20-20, Grand Marnier given the sous-vide treatment with with dried hibiscus, vodka, pink peppercorns and sumac, mixed with vodka and raspberry and served in a generously iced tin cup with a bottle for top-ups. Husband had the Za’atar martini – another sous-vide product, where the za’atar (local thyme) is slow-cooked with the gin before re-bottling. Husband’s collegue tried what sounded like a very macho preserved lemon, herb and tequila concoction, but ended up in a decidedly girly champagne glass. It was slurped none-the-less.
We were pushed to our table a little before time – we had taken the early sitting, and the place was near-void. Hard to understand, but fittingly explained by the hoards who turned the place over around ten pm.
My husband and his friend were talking work. I was almost bored to tears until the sommelier walked into my life. He’s debonair, a ladykiller, and I happily soaked him up for a moment or three while I had his fleeting attention. He complimented me on my choice of Assyrtico from Santorini. I complimented him on his forethought in putting it on the menu. Then I might have complimented him on everything, I think. And asked him where he was going for his summer holidays. I held back from asking if I could go with him.
We started with some yellowtail, raw and slippery, partnered with crisp radish, fragrant herbs and a crumbly crunch or coriander kernals. Of course we tried the lobster kibbeh with avocado labneh – a signature, and rightly so – christmas-bauble shaped pies stuffed with juicy sweet lobster and offset by the tangy sauce. The pan-fried chicken livers were buttery, tender and well spiced, but ignored by my picky husband.
Mains involved some spicy lamb cutlets with rosemary and minted labneh. I think they were quite good but they did that disappearing act that super classics often do. The highlight was some char-grilled spicy quail pieces, wrapped in vine leaves and impaled on skewers. They were quite stupendous, and has us all licking our fingers hungrily. The chicken tagine with preserved lemon, apricot and walnuts was our master-dish, and although not groundbreaking in any major way, showed me again that Qbara knows how to do things very well.
My stodgy dining partners did not even contemplate desserts until I started reciting the menu. An appealing mix that reads like an exotic florist’s listing. We settled on a strawberry & hibiscus jelly with rosewater ice cream, and a white chocolate semifreddo with preserved lemon, raspberries and rose turkish delight. I really don’t need to tell you how good they were – look at them. Incredible.
None of the dishes could be faulted, except surprisingly, the one I enjoyed the most (the quail had not been fully boned, making dissection tricky). The chef of Qbara is Colin Clague – opening chef of both Zuma and The Ivy – no slouch. His dishes are not just tasty, and quite unique, but presented in a way that paints a picture for diners beyond anything else in the Arabic line in Dubai. The use of rustic plates, antique goblets, ceramic and wooden textures and exotic patterns makes each dish (and drink) a work of art, a story told, a dream visited.
Likewise, the venue itself is a masterpiece. It’s impossible to believe that the building used to house the sticky-floored and charmless Planet Hollywood. It’s been designed by Studio Glitt (also Zuma, amongst other great restaurants). There are magic carpets on the walls, antique wooden panels, glittering glass curtains, suave deep lounge areas, a dome chandelier with 658 dangling strands. The wall behind the bar is converted cleverly and continuously by the visual mapping of Joe Matouk. Staff are wandering in uniforms designed by Essa. It’s visually so beautiful I struggled to leave, especially as crowds of Iranian and Lebanese princesses were entering in all their finery as we toddled off.
Qbara isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a symbol of Dubai. It’s Arabic, but so totally affected by the beauty of modern life, it will alter the world’s perception of what “Arabic” should mean. It’s the first place you should take international guests if you are a Dubai resident. It’s the last place you should visit if you’re ceasing to be a Dubai resident. It’s a restaurant that should be on everyone’s Dubai bucket list, and my absolute favourite at present. Go.
Pros: classy arabic food, sexy music, gorgeous cocktails, interesting winelist, unique ambience, attractive staff (:0)
Cons: In Wafi (traffic is misdirected around roadworks), slightly nightclubby feel (probably not a bad thing for most), not cheap (but absolutely worth it)
Reservations nearly always necessary
ph. +971 4 709 2500
Wafi Mall, Oud Metha (opposite Raffles). Map
*A guide to ratings: These take into account the price, quality, service and the facilities, and in effect are a value rating. A venue with mains at 30AED has just as much chance of getting a 10/10 as a fine dining establishment.
- 0-2/10 = exceptionally overpriced or tremendously awful. Avoid at all costs.
- 3-5/10 = overpriced in respect to quality. Lacklustre. Don’t eat there unless there are no other options.
- 6-7/10 = reasonable value. Check other options in the area just in case, but not a bad choice over-all.
- 8-9/10= worth seeking out. Tremendous food and ambience. One of if not the best restaurant in the area.
- 10/10 = As good as it gets. Stop what you’re doing, book a table now.