Silvena Rowe“Do you like it here? Is there culture?” she asks. I’m supposed to be interviewing her, but she’s putting out feelers – she’s considering moving here, and bringing her cuisine with her. Studying her, it’s not hard to imagine her fitting in. Gold mirror glasses, leopard print tee with sparkle, harem pants, wild hair, bare feet, tan to die for. She’s sitting cross legged in a lounge at i-Kandy, talking a million miles an hour. Hands flying, chin forward, interested in what I have to say about Dubai, what she has to say about herself, and it appears, anything at all that can be delivered by well-positioned conversational tangent.

Before Silvena Rowe came to Dubai, she had believed it to be vulgar – a place of no substance. Why even bother? But since a pivotal return to her roots after the death of her food-loving father from Turkey, her connection to its cuisine has intensified. After food safaris and some self-teaching in Turkey and Syria, the writing of a book (Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume – with foreword by Heston Blumenthal) that details her findings, and the opening of Quince (modern, Ottoman inspired cuisine in Mayfair), she has realised that a move to the Middle East is vital to her progression. It would not be Damascus, her ‘favourite city in the world’, it needed to be stable, modern, livable, and essentially ready for her cuisine. Dubai called her, and dreading it, she arrived for the first time some months back. She stayed at Al Maha, avoiding the glitz of the city, saying to herself that she could just stay there. But business brought her out into our forest of tall towers eventually – and what did she find? It surprised her, smacked her in the face with its sophistication and style. There was more to Dubai than she had thought. This just might work.

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She’s one of those women who actually fit the ‘larger than life’ moniker. As she uncurls her legs and repositions, I realise how tall she must be. One lengthy limb now dangles over the arm of the chair as she arranges herself in a more appropriate angle to deliver rays of sun onto her bronzing neck and shoulders. She never stops talking. She says again that Dubai is pulling her, emotionally and vocationally. She’s got meetings on the go – three companies bidding for her. Silvena’s food is strongly influenced by the Middle East, and it’s an inevitable step. She says she’s not flogging a brand that she will visit three times a year, not like some other restaurant brands that arrive here just to take their share of the gold that lines the roads. No – for her it’s different. It’s not just because Dubai is the obvious hub in her adored M.E. It’s also because there is a gaping hole she must fill – modernised, westernised regional cuisine. It’s a surprise nobody’s gone there before her.

Silvena Rowe_salad_originalMiddle Eastern restaurants in Dubai all serve the same dishes – moutabel, tabouleh, kofta, shawarma, baklava and rich, fragrant rice dishes like maglouba and biryani. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Rowe herself admits to a love of moutabel that borders on fetish. It’s consistent. You know what you are getting. It makes it easy to measure the standard of the food – if they can’t make a decent fattoush, then it’s not a great restaurant. Like other world-wide stalwarts – things like Champagne, pizza, pho, Thai green curry – many MENA (Middle East North Africa) tastes that are more than something you put in your mouth – a brand, almost, that guarantees the same thing every time. But how boring would  Champagne become if that’s all you ever got to drink? And imagine how less crisp and clean it would be without modern techniques in the winery… This is the equivalent of what we’ve got happening here in Dubai with regional cuisine. The same old recipes – things that have not changed since the fall of the Ottoman empire. And as much as I know they’re onto a good thing, I’ve pretty much had cardboard-flavoured humous up to the eyeballs, and I doubt I’m the only one.

Think about progress in the region since that Ottoman fall in 1914 – and how that has impacted the life and culture. Wealth, govenrment, globalisation and technology have affected most aspects of the lives of the people all over that empire, and further afield into my current home country, the UAE. In the most part, particularly so here, it has been embraced with a fervour that is all-consuming. Fast cars, spectacular architecture, haut couture, the world wide web. Emiratis are some of the most accepting citizens of modern culture in the world. And yet, the recipes of regional food have been largely ignored, left stagnating like a pond of sour water. It’s lazy, and doesn’t fit. Why is this? Sure, it’s nice food, but it’s not entirely appropriate to modern day Dubai life. All that sugar, ghee and starch is converting into obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We must also ask what picture it paints for visitors? It shows a nation that takes on other cultures but leaves its own to wither and date. Which does not fit the profile in aspects other than food.

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As a contrast, Rowe offers recipes that embrace tradition and modernity simultaneously. I can see an affinity with colour, aromatics and texture. Her fervent nature has convinced me to buy her book (130AED at Kinokinuya). Expect dishes like beetroot moutabel with tahini and toasted orange peel, wild greens and feta borek, kadafai schnitzel with pomegranate sauce, cumin and sumac-crusted barramundi with avocado hummus, pumpkin and za’atar hummus, yoghurt pannacotta with apricot mousse, pink peppercorn and cardamom meringues with mulberries and white chocolate. I seriously cannot wait until she arrives.

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Silvena Rowe has registered the name ‘Ottoman Cafe’, which she hopes to open in Dubai before the end of this year. She also has high hopes of a retail offering similar to Carluccios or Dean and Deluca. Her plans are to live here – her first time as a resident in the Middle East, at least for 3 weeks out of every month (Ottoman Cafe will also open in London over coming months). She also has plans for bringing back the Levantine breakfast with a bang, so don’t just expect something fine dining and inapproachable – she wants something for everyone.

If you would like to see Silvena Rowe in action, you can catch a glimpse on BBC2 here, or have a look at this manic montage

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Until she does arrive, there are a few fine dining Middle Eastern restaurants in Dubai that are worth a look at, although at this stage none really break out of the square. Great restaurants, even if their chefs (or concept providers) could possibly be accused of having a lack of imagination.

  • Ottomans five-star Turkish at Grosvenor House, Time Out Dubai Award winner 2013
  • Lalezar Sumptuous venue serving Turkish cuisine at Zabeel Saray
  • Leventine Fun atmosphere on the terrace at Atlantis, the Palm
  • Al Nafoorah Home-cooking style Lebanese option at both Emirates Towers and Zabeel Saray (second possibly the better option)
  • Amaseena Ritz Carlton on the beach, a beautiful, tented village feel.

I also love Zahr el Laymoun, which is more casual but serves some interesting home-style food at a great price at Souq al Bahar.

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If you feel like something more North African, try

  • Tagine at the One and Only. Traditional (and very rich) Moroccan food in an incredibly romantic setting or
  • Marrakach, which has a reputation for being one of the most underrated restaurants in the city by those in the know.

And of course Almaz by Momo, a personal favourite for a cheaper lunchtime pastilla hit.

Abu Dhabi gets a little closer to modern Middle Eastern nosh with restaurants like award winning Li Berut, which offers Lebanese fusion at Etihad Towers. Another recent addition is Ornina, which offers dishes with more of a southern Mediterranean and North African vibe, which tends to be fused with expensive ingredients from Western Europe. Fabulous pod-style venue, but as yet receiving very mixed reviews.I’d appreciate any other recommendations, and if anyone has an update on Greg Malouf’s recent sniffing out of the city, I’d like to know about that too – there were rumours, but the trail seems to have gone cold…

10 thoughts on “Silvena Rowe – Can she shake up Dubai’s Middle Eastern cuisine?”

  1. You have truly whetted my appetite for the arrival of this whirlwind – may well have to get that book in the meantime. One to add to the list is Flooka at Dubai Marina Beach Resort which combines traditional Arabic (Lebanese) cuisine with fish… as the basis for everything. No cardboard hummus there…at all..Fabulous interview Sarah…sparkling, energetic and inspired as the lady herself..

  2. I have been wanted to make pink peppercorn meringues since forever but never had the courage to do since my family's palatte isn't the easiest to impress. Especially since they're who I experiment on. I think that Middle Eastern cuisine is one of the most intense in the world. People probably don't have the courage to change in the recipes because of the fear of change! I once made beet hummus and you should have seen their faces! You have to risk it and everyone waits for someone else to take that risk. She's one of the few who didn't wait!

  3. Interesting comment form La Mere Culinaire.You are mixing up traditional food from the Middle East and lumping in the same pot all the different cuisines from different areas of the ME.Without wanting to be anal about it. But as far as I am concerned there are only three cuisines in the world and they are: French – Indian and Chinese.You would be interested to know that what qualifies a "Cuisine" is a system. The French Cuisine was created by dedicating in the kitchen clear areas for different preparation such as sauces, open fire braising…etc. Search what defines Indian and Chinese Cuisines for your culinary education.I accept that today any chef or cook or restauranteur claims to be from this and that Cuisine while in fact they are merely executing recipes!There is no Middle East cuisine and the closest and most famous is the Allepian Cuisine and I am being generous in terming it Cuisine.What you have are traditional recipes honed through the ages. These recipes originated from "les recoltes du terroir".With today availability of fresh product around the world. It is easier to cook up one's own recipe by either creating a new one or adapting one.Whether it is the Indian sub continent or China or the Levant, all these people are very happy with their hundred or thousand of years old recipes.Would you claim to have improved Pizza by having a topping of Foie Gras or Falafel for crying out loud?We have seen them come and go a la F. Adria – BlueMental – Nouvelle Cuisine – Robuchon Bouchon….etc. It is a fad. A flash in the pan. Where are they now?Please do me a favor and talk about recipes and not Cuisine!As for Silvena, let us keep our feet on the ground. It is the usual Dubai newcomer hype for the opening of yet another eatery and she is most welcome.But save us the rhetoric of her having re-invented "Middle East Cuisine" under the guise of Modern Ottoman!Let us have a close look at her Quince restaurant menu. Not many Middle Eastern choice and some dishes with either the name or one ingredient are Arabic:I will give you two examples from her dishes which is a bit of a laugh really:1-Poussin Shawarmawith Celeriac and Horseradish remoulade and Trufle Labneh!2- Grilled Seabasswith Aubergine and Aleppo chilly puree and Dandelion saladthe third dish is Squid with Chorizo and Tahina….you look it up in the a la carte menu.Oh come on, it is a joke? Isn't It. Or should I say Init?If this is the sort of "risk" that you are talking about, then I wish you enjoyment and I will stick to my greasy Shawarma and my boring hummos.Either way, let's call a spade, a spade and Silvena is an excellent marketeer but an up and coming Chef she is not!And whether we are capable or not on improving or as you put it "changing" our Middle East food is a big question mark. How can you improve perfection?

  4. Hi – I'm so glad you've taken the time to comment, and what a comment it is! I wouldn't mind knowing a little about where your knowledge comes from, as your name link gives little information. Are you a chef yourself? I think your definition of the word 'cuisine' is unusual, and I have not come across it in all the time since I started working in restaurants myself at age 18. As far as I know, the word itself stems from the french word for 'kitchen', and basically refers to the food that comes out of it. It's therefore not simply food, but assumes some preparation is involved. I did a quick google to double-check, and there was nothing that was as specific as you describe in the first 10 pages. Is this something specific you learned at cookery school?Regarding Quince, Silvena Rowe did leave the restaurant some time ago, and so the food (cuisine) prepared there is no longer her own. The menu there now might provide an insight into the direction she wished to take in a Mayfair hotel upon opening, I'm sure it's not exactly what we would see here. Besides, I think that grilled seabass sounds great. Thirdly, yes, she is a great self-marketer. If she wasn't, then I doubt anyone would ever have heard of her. That's what it takes to be a celebrity chef (along with plenty of other talents). I guess your point is that this is a bad thing, and perhaps it is – for some – but isn't it great we don't all like exactly the same thing? Those who follow famous chefs will all agree this is not a personal frailty but a necessary evil.And finally. Middle Eastern food has already reached perfection? Well, I guess that opinion is entirely personal – as is mine, and we must agree to disagree. I believe there is a great base in the ancestry of the cuisine, but modern life has practical demands, and an international palate has sensory ones that are not being entirely fulfilled at present. But as I said, that's just what I think.

  5. Jay Eim. There is enough drivel on the internet, and the last thing Dubai's food blogs need is more slapdash argument written in bad English. You jump from one unsubstantiated conclusion to the next and use such poorly constructed sentences that it is really a struggle to follow what you are saying. Being opinionated like this smacks of arrogance which is OK if you have the style, panache, and authority to pull it off. Based on your writing, it is safe to say that you clearly have none! And by spewing out this kind of nonsense in this manner, you embarrass only yourself. I have been eating never-changing Middle Eastern "cuisine" (you will please allow me to use this word if only for this reply – thanks) for long enough to state that any change to it is MORE THAN WELCOME IN ANY SHAPE OR FORM WHATSOEVER!!! We have been stuck eating the same dishes in these parts for longer than I care to remember. A lot of these dishes (and more importantly the thinking behind them) need reworking because our palates have simply moved on. Also, I have noticed from your blog (you left your tracks on Foodiva – http://www.muhamara.com/) that you have gone out of your way to share certain recipes and thoughts on how certain dishes should or should not be served. Why would anyone want to make "Kaymak" as you call it? Or "Mamuniyeh"? Semolina cooked with water and sugar???? Fat skimmed off boiled milk????????? You, sir, must be joking!!!!!! This is food for the dark ages. Let's leave it there and move on.

  6. The more the merrier. Loved reading the post – am a great fan of your style of writing anyway. We'll have to wait for long, I guess! My personal favourite is Al Nafoora. And when my wallet is very tight, I love most of the joints serving Middle Easter food on Al Riqqa street and Al Diyafa.

Some other suggestions or opinion to add? Please comment