The meal deal

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Dubai has become one of the world’s best cities for fine dining. So how did this happen, and can the city sustain this huge boom in high-end restaurants?

In many ways, Dubai is comparable to Las Vegas. While neither had a long history of fine dining, both were desert towns pushing for tourism and the amounts of money flowing through these places has seen a number of top hotels opening. And with all the new openings come the top restaurants, fine dining and big-name chefs.

For decades, most of Dubai’s nightlife revolved around high-end hotels. It’s where most of the bars, nightclubs and restaurants are located and it’s rare that restaurants outside of hotels are licensed, which makes in-hotel dining more attractive not only for visitors but also expat residents.

In mid-2014 Dubai, according to the Dubai Corporation For Tourism And Commerce Marketing, had 612 hotels. By the end of 2016, an additional 140 hotels will have been added to that total. If there’s one thing Dubai does well, it’s build hotels. The new hotels that have been built in the last decade are mostly four- and five-star properties and the thought of opening a top hotel without a quality restaurant is unthinkable. In fact, there are normally several onsite.

In the case of Atlantis hotel on the Palm, they have 23 restaurants including a branch of Nobu, Giorgio Locatelli’s Italian restaurant, Yuan (from chef Jeff Tan, formerly of Hakkasan Mayfair) and Gordon’s Ramsay’s recent return to Dubai with his Brit restaurant Bread Street Kitchen & Bar.

Mark Patten is the senior vice president of food and beverage at Atlantis. He oversees those restaurants and is currently setting up around ten more for the forthcoming $1.5 billion Royal Atlantis Resort, adjacent to his current hotel. The new restaurants he is working on are among many others on the way.

“It’s predicted that there will be 1,600 new restaurants in the UAE by 2018, that’s equivalent to more than one restaurant per day, which is pretty intense stuff,” he tells Portfolio. Patten believes that the key factors driving this incredible expansion include an emergent young population with a high disposable income as well as the growth of Dubai as a tourist destination. In addition, economic conditions have made Dubai a favourable city for setting up a restaurant business.

“There are also lower expenses on labour costs, tax and VAT, which play an important part in the influx of high-end restaurants opening as it enables a lower running cost, which is obviously attractive to any new outlet,” he adds. “Being tax free also allows the residents of Dubai to dine out more often due to a higher disposable income. When you consider that 25 per cent of the population has an annual income of over Dhs150,000 ($40,837) and its tax free, it’s absolutely going to play a huge part in this.”

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As a result, chefs from Michelin-stared restaurants elsewhere have been enticed to open in the UAE. Gordon Ramsey has also likened Dubai to “a mini Las Vegas attracting the best chefs from around the world” and as well as his new restaurant at the Atlantis Hotel, he also intends to bring to Dubai a branch of his three-Michelin-starred London restaurant. Other chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants who have already opened here include Marco Pierre White, Atul Kotchar, Nobu Matsuhisa, Gary Rhodes, Heinz Beck, Pierre Gagnaire, Jean-George Vongerichten, Yannick Alleno and Vineet Bhatia and more.

Indian chef Bhatia was one of the first to open in the city and has witnessed the rapid growth. He tells us, “I first came in 2004 and there was nobody here, only Gordon had Verre at the Hilton, and we were opening up Indego and people were laughing at me, saying, ‘Are you crazy? Dubai?’ I said, ‘No, it’ll come, it’ll come, I can sense it’ but now you name any chef back in Europe, they all want to come to Dubai and set up an outpost.”

For others, Dubai is now the obvious place to set up a restaurant. “For us coming to Dubai was just a natural progression,” adds Vongerichten, a chef with an empire of 30 restaurants worldwide. “Dubai is an exciting city, people are now coming here from all of the Middle East, Europe and Asia. And now we’re here we are working with local farmers for fresh herbs, lettuce and greens. Eventually you will see, there will be a lot more farmers here too, but for Dubai right now, the world is a local source.”

Perhaps the most interesting new restaurant concept in the city is avant-garde restaurant Enigma. Housed at the Palazzo Versace hotel, chefs from the San Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants have a residency before handing over to someone else on the list. It’s planned to have four different chefs every years and launched recently with Quique Dacosta, whose eponymous restaurant in Spain holds a full three Michelin stars. His food at Enigma has been getting rave reviews. The next chef to take the space is yet to be announced, but Portfolio has learned that it’s someone from a Scandinavian restaurant.

And it’s not just the name chefs that have set up something new here. Increasingly, restaurants that have been a success elsewhere simply replicate the experience in Dubai with the same name, menu and (usually) staff from the original, moving out to bring that experience to the Middle East. London restaurants like Gaucho, Hakkasan, Coya, Geales and Novokov; Catch and China Grill from New York; La Petit Maison, Sass Café and Bistrot Bagatelle from the south of France or La Cantine du Faubourg from Paris; TOKO from Sydney, and so on. A restaurant that does well in a big city increasingly opens a branch in Dubai.

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A branch of Cipriani is just about to open in the financial centre. Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez is opening as is his countryman Jaime Pesaque with his restaurant Mayta. The Galvin Brothers Chris and Jeff will open two places at the Citywalk development, while globally renowned Japanese restaurant Sumosan is about to open at The Taj Dubai hotel and the outstanding Los Angles restaurant Asia De Cuba is also slated for a 2016 opening.

Even the venerable London institution, The Ivy, has an outlet where the famous shepherd’s pie is every bit as good as the original in London, and the stained glass windows are the same design. There are, however, no celebrities dining here, but neither is there too much trouble getting a table. And that’s true of the city as a whole – it’s uncommon that you can’t get a table in a top restaurant by calling to book the day before, thus letting you eat great food on a weekend whim.

Last year, Jean-Luc Naret the F&B senior vice president for the Jumeirah Group, and former publisher of the Michelin Guide, predicted that within five years Dubai would be one of the top culinary destinations in the world. Bhatia belives that Dubai is already at the stage: “For me the top cities around the world are London, Tokyo, New York, Barcelona and Dubai.”

It’s not, however, something that is getting much global recognition. The UAE isn’t covered by the Michelin Guide so no restaurant here has Michelin stars. The San Pellegrino Top 50 has nothing from the city and the sole entry in the top 100 is Japanese restaurant Zuma at number 88. The fact that Zuma is the sole representative is maybe a sign that the judges are a little behind the times when it comes to Dubai. Local creation OKKU is arguably a better Japanese restaurant with more inventive food.

One of the results of top chefs from elsewhere going to Dubai has been a knock on effect to these local, original restaurants. The famous, big-name chef opens somewhere and brings in his staff from home, then they stay in the city and eventually launch their own place. And the standard is raised.

It happened with Gordon Ramsay’s original Dubai venture Verre. The head chef from 2001, Jason Atherton, has now opened his own place, Social. Two of Ramsay’s others protégés, Scott Price and Nick Alves took over Verre and launched Table 9, which was a better restaurant than the one it replaced. The pair now have their new venture Taste Kitchen.

Likewise, Izu Ani, the head chef from French transplant La Petit Maison, left to set up his own restaurant La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, which is superior to his previous employer’s and is now one of the best places to eat in the entire region. The number of homegrown restaurants for fine-dining are also growing, including the likes of Qbara interpreting Arabic food in creative modern ways.

Chef Ani acknowledges the unusual culture in Dubai that has made for such a strong dining scene in a short short space of time.

“It stems back to the early days when people didn’t believe that Dubai could supply authentic products, of good quality, from different cultures. However, people are now seeing the success of existing restaurants and have realised it’s a destination that takes food seriously. Top chefs are bringing their know-how and experiences from their training around the world and applying their skills here to create some truly unique concepts. In some cases, it is easier to source higher quality produce here than back in their home countries due to the central location, giving them better access to the Middle East and Africa, for example. Due to the laws in Europe, sometimes you can be restricted to what can and can’t be imported.”

And this has had an influence at all levels of dining, not just the higher end establishments. Strangely, where Dubai was lacking was the mid-range of the dining scene. For example, you can eat incredible Indian food at cafes and restaurants in the Karama area for next to nothing, or fully open the wallet and have a seven-course tasting menu at a fine-dining restaurant, but it was hard to find great places in between, but that middle-ground is now beginning to flourish as well.

These may sound like small things, but a rounded dining scene is vital for any city and the gaps in the culinary map are being filled in. This year’s annual food festival had the addition of Eat The World DXB, an offshoot that saw street food celebrated, including 15 food trucks that were shipped in from as far as London for the event. Even at street food level, Dubai is prepared to bring people in to cater for, and inspire, the residents.

So is this growth across the board anywhere near sustainable? Bhatia is confident that it’s positive thing and states, “The more hotels are opening up, the more chefs are coming in and the competition is building up, but in a very positive manner, there’s enough for everybody… but increasingly you need to be good at what you do.”

Which sounds like a polite way of saying, increased competition is going to kill off the places that are not as great. And they don’t all work out, of course. Marco Pierre White’s unfortunately-named restaurant Titanic failed to stay afloat and others have also gone under, but the turnover is nothing like as vicious as in New York or London. Some, however, believe that Dubai could be reaching a saturation point.

“I fear it may come to that, where restaurants simply cannot compete for footfall,” Ani says. “Currently, restaurants are still making the investment in the hope that their concept will attract customers to their venue; however, I think in Dubai, there will be a revision because the restaurant offering is starting to outweigh the demand.”

Ani believes that the whole restaurant scene in Dubai will have a “recalibration” but feels the future should be homegrown: “Instead of buying into global brands and installing them here, we should look at investing in and creating more homegrown brands and take the time to nurture and grow them so that we can begin to export these brand names to other countries.

“Dubai needs a long-term vision, investing in grassroots training academies; education and other educational avenues, which will help this industry grow. The foresight is needed to appreciate existing talent and to work on these relationships to grow together. More homegrown concepts are needed to stabilise the market for a long-term success plan.”

In Dubai there are currently around 7,500 restaurants in total, which puts it at roughly one for every 280 inhabitants – in New York it’s about one for every 420 – and many more are on the way, which will create fierce competition much like exists in New York or London.

Dubai is not, and probably never will be at the level of London, New York or Paris when it comes to fine dining, but right now the city is still one of the best places in the world for eating out… and it’s rapidly improving every year.

We should be celebrating that.

For Portfolio Magazine. Feature_DubaiFood

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