I was at an event yesterday afternoon, and another of my food blogging Dubians asked a chef, who is Michelin starred in his own country, “Is Dubai ready for Michelin?”
He spoke diplomatically for about two minutes, praising many of the restaurants in Dubai, it’s rapid growth, and then swiftly changed the subject onto what he loves so much about this city. No. Dubai is not ready for Michelin. I don’t need him to answer that for me – I know it myself. But the question to ask is “Why?”
Michelin is more than just a restaurant guide. It’s stamp on a city signifies a Neil Armstrong sized leap into the gastronomic world, plus a mark of excellence when it comes to tourism. Basically, there has to be something to see, something to eat, and somewhere to stay that is worth yelling to the people back home about, not just in the singular, but many, many things – enough to write a book about.
You may say that Dubai has plenty to write home about. So may I – in fact, I do, three times a week, here on this blog. But the problem is, that nearly everything in Dubai is borrowed, and I’m not talking about the financial crisis. This is the city that has both everything and nothing. A city made up of the desires of a multi-cultured population and the whims of the powers that be. It is a new city, with a local citizenship that represents only a fifth of the total demographic, and an economy relying on tourism. It has no history or unique culture. It has not had time to develop it’s own personality. Don’t get me wrong – it has personality, but it’s in the vein of Sybil.
But on Tuesday night, I glimpsed the start of Dubai’s future. Two fantastic young chefs have just found themselves in a sliding doors moment. Gordon Ramsay has decided to close the flailing Verre, leaving Scott Price and Nick Alvis looking for work. Now, they are both excellent chefs, and would have absolutely no trouble picking up work in any number of the best European restaurants, but do you know what they have decided to do?
They are opening their own restaurant, in Dubai, remaining in the soon-to-be-vacated shell of Verre by Gordon Ramsay. I’m getting all tingly just writing about it. You see, I come from a city where the culture is very food oriented, and this signifies, for me, a step towards Dubai starting to grow up.
There are many great restaurants in Dubai, and if the Michelin guide included Dubai, I’m sure that restaurants like Refletts, Rhodes Mezzanine, Stay, Indego, Zuma and others would be receiving a star or two. But the problem is, all of those are imports. I challenge you to find a unique fine dining experience in Dubai that is not based on it’s location (eg on the 123rd floor or at the end of a pier), or its celebrity chef, or a brand name that was already famous elsewhere.
The problem with restaurants like this is that they rely on the name or the location to bring people back. The food eventually suffers. And if it doesn’t, then the experience does. It’s impossible not to compare Dubai’s Buddah Bar to the one in Paris, or wondering if Mezzanine sees it’s celebrity chef more than once or twice a year. And that brings me back to Verre. I reviewed it at the beginning of the year, and the food was great, the experience was not.
Now, we have the chefs behind the great food also working the general running of the restaurant, and this makes all the difference. It is their baby, their first child, and so you can be guaranteed they are not going to let it go awry. I’m going to forgive them for staying on the other side of the creek, because it’s guys like this who will shape Dubai in the future, and make me WANT to go back there.
They gave us a sample of what is to come, and I like it. The fussiness of the current restaurant will be toned down (hooray), and the set menus will disappear, instead being replaced with a series of small dishes that are designed to be eaten in quantity. Sounds like a build-your-own degustation menu (hooray times 2). There will be a large variety of vegetarian dishes, and based on what they served us on Tuesday, even the carnivores will partake.
These guys have a true talent with not only taste, but texture. Each morsel served to us on Tuesday night was matched with a mocktail shooter. Very clever. They took my old favourite combination of beetroot, goats cheese and walnut, and turned it into a retro-looking magenta canape with crunchy beet chips and candied walnut, and served it with a beetroot infusion. They partnered pumpkin with horseradish, keeping the pumpkin firm, not sloppy – it tasted fresh and zingy, not stodgy like punpkin usually does. Lobster came dressed in vanilla and mango and served with a lime and lemongrass shooter – just on the edge of sweet, and for me, as good as a glass of wine (and that is saying quite a bit). I hope they continue these clever mocktails – in a country where alcohol is allowed but still not for everyone, it is wonderful to see non-alcoholic drinks approached with the same care as the food and wine list.
I wish them well. Scott and Nick – sorry to tell you this, but I have high hopes and even greater expectations. Please don’t let Dubai down, because this is the baby step on our path to joining the Michelin throng.
Verre closes October 28, and Table 9 reopens on November 9. I’ll be there on the tenth.
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