UAE is undoubtedly on the hot list now: the FIFA World Cup 2022 is underway in nearby Qatar, and the Netflix reality series, Dubai Bling’s embarrassingly addictive blend of diamonds and drama have entered our lives. Add this to an approaching winter, and vacationers are once again flocking to the Arabian Peninsula, looking for warm and quick getaways. While Dubai is traditionally touted as relatively ‘touristy’, Abu Dhabi has graduated from being just a detour and is quickly rising as a destination in itself. A lot of the credit goes to the capital Emirate’s intriguing culinary landscape, catering to the 200 nationalities that populate it.
As Middle East and North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants return to Abu Dhabi in January 2023 after a successful first edition in February 2022, the spotlight is on luxury dining once again.
Over the decades
Over 50 years ago, before the formation of the country, the humble Bedouin diet of dates, laban, rice, fish and lamb saw a new wave of flavours thanks to trade connections. “Emirati dishes such as ragag (crispy flat bread with cheese, honey or date syrup), chebab (pancakes with date syrup, local honey and cheese) and balaleet (omelette with vermicelli noodles) were sold in these markets by entrepreneurial women, alongside more fragrant dishes from visiting traders,” narrates chef Khulood Atiq, the country’s first female Emirati chef.
Fast forward to the period between 1990 and 2010, and exciting, foreign concepts arrived, reflecting every corner of the world. “Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian and Filipino restaurants popped up and were very successful,” she continues, adding that during this period, the only way to enjoy an authentic Emirati cuisine experience was to be invited to an Emirati home for Friday lunch.
This too is changing as local chefs embrace and highlight their own cuisine again: Mezlai at Emirates Palace, for instance, designed to recall an airy Bedouin tent, offers luxurious takes on local favourites like labneh, fattoush and grilled kebbeh using quality ingredients from the sea, mountains, oases and deserts.
Abu Dhabi’s luxury dining started peaking seven to eight years ago and has been expanding exponentially ever since, says Pang Longchin, executive chef at COYA Abu Dhabi, which serves South American cuisine. He continues, “Just based on the success of the MENA 50 Best Restaurant ceremony hosted in Abu Dhabi [in 2022] already showcases what kind of quality of restaurants you can expect in this city.” Along with COYA, Hakkasan and Butcher & Still were ranked under the 50 best restaurants in the MENA region.
Peruvian vs. Emirati flavours
Located beside Galleria Mall near Four Seasons Hotel, at Al Maryah island, seen as one of Abu Dhabi’s “popular and high-demand” locations, the branch is one of the 10 COYAs around the world. “Launching COYA [here] was challenging at the beginning because South American cuisine was still new to the market. We reworked and adjusted the menu so that we could cater to a diverse clientele; also different from what we were used to in Dubai,” says Pang. Chilean sea bass cazuela is hands down the crowd favourite. He believes part of the success of COYA lies in the similarities between Peruvian and Emirati cuisine. “Both cultures love presenting their food with sharing in mind. Both love to put up a feast in the middle of the dining room to share with family and friends,” says Pang.
Luxury as a lifestyle
A global flavour profile aside, restaurants like COYA are also moving beyond just culinary offerings to offer a holistic experience of luxury. “Art and music are part of the core DNA of COYA. We have our own in-house record label COYA Music. Through COYA Music we offer events, podcasts, playlists as well as releases.” This year they did their own music festival in Dubai which saw resident DJs from across the globe for a day to night beach festival on Palm Jumeirah. They also support local artists across all locations by collaborating with them on art projects and exhibiting their work.
The expat boom
In Al Maryah island, looking out at the ocean as the sun sets behind the city skyline, is LPM Abu Dhabi, a warm nod to French Mediterranean cuisine that opened in 2017. Locals and tourists gather here to lounge on the sunny terrace, dining on escargots de bourgogne (snails with garlic butter).
When he was in Dubai in 2012, Navaneeth Chandran, chef at LPM Abu Dhabi, would see a steady inflow of locals and expats from Abu Dhabi in pursuit of luxury dining experiences. “A lot of the diners I see here are known to me from Dubai,” he adds. Since 2015, the chef says there have been more luxury restaurants opening in the city. “We, now, have a lot of regulars who come here for business lunches with their colleagues in the afternoon, and dinners with their families in the evenings,” says Navaneeth.
In summer, the restaurant is frequented by locals. “In December, we see a lot more expats.” While the core menu does not change, curations that also appeal to the local clientele are added for every season. “Even the demand for authentic Indian food is on the rise, with Abu Dhabi being home to many great Indian restaurants,” says Khulood. “Whether you want a Pondicherry prawn curry, Lucknowi lamb boti, Alleppey fish curry, or Chettinad aloo, Abu Dhabi has it all. We also see tourists looking for Iranian and Lebanese cuisines,” she adds.
Navaneeth moved from LPM Dubai to Abu Dhabi during the pandemic. He says, “The number of locals and expats that we are getting right now is double the number from the previous year. It is more than the number we got before the pandemic as well,” says the Chef adding, “This year has been the busiest.”
The writer was in Abu Dhabi at the invitation of the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi