Standing tall at the southern entrance of Dubai’s trendy, seaside open-air strip La Mer, Lebanese restaurant Babel welcomes diners to enjoy a Mediterranean seafood experience.
Upon entering the high-ceilinged restaurant, diners are met with a faux-night sky that hovers above the wide selection of fresh fish tidily nestled on a bed of ice chips that stretches across the hall. Charbel, an experienced fish connoisseur, stands behind the assortment, detailing the different types of fish and crustaceans and how they would be best enjoyed — grilled, fried or raw. He’s also there to make sure you don’t over-order, as the mezze selection is “extremely rich and worth every bite,” as he put it.
He was right. After taking our seats, we were served a delightful salty algae, a tangy chili sauce and the typical Lebanese mixed nuts and sunflower seeds you’d find at any Lebanese restaurant. Be sure to only take a bit of each though — there’s plenty more to come.
Mezze is already a full-on feast of its own, and Babel knows how to put an ocean-twist on the traditional champions of Lebanon’s “tapas.” Among the winners — and highly recommended dishes that are must-orders for any first-time (and surely second- or third-) visitors — were the shrimps fatteh (a bed of shrimps sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley topped with yoghurt, eggplants and fried pita bread) and Tabboulet El Bahar (Arabic for Sailor’s Tabbouleh) which features shrimps mixed with wheat sprouts, tomatoes, onions and parsley. It’s refreshing when experimentation with classic staples yields mouthwatering results.
My father always told me, “Arabic restaurants depend on how good their hummus is.” And as he’s a heavy-set, stubborn Lebanese man who refuses to have a below-par bite, you can take his word for it. He would, I believe, have ordered three plates of the Hummus Beiruti for the table. It’s a pleasantly tangy dish mixed with radishes, parsley and mint. This, accompanied by the well-dressed shrimps and octopus à la Provençale (read: sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley) and small, crispy cubes of batata harra (spicy potatoes) are the deserving opening acts to the much-awaited main show.
Charbel recommended we go with the ultimate trifecta of the ocean — the prongs of Poseidon’s trident: Grilled jumbo shrimps, fried Sultan Ibrahim (threadfin bream) and charcoal-grilled sea bass. Seafood is all about freshness and too much seasoning can overpower the natural flavors and ruin the whole experience. But Babel makes sure it’s the fish flavor that takes center stage. Small bits of burnt charcoal on the butterfly-opened sea bass complemented the tender fish flesh, as they did on the jumbo shrimps. The Sultan Ibrahim was lightly fried — not so much as to have Greenpeace protest an oil spill, but enough to make the outer skin crunchy with every bite and keep the inner flesh soft and succulent.
After all that, it’s safe to say that we weren’t just stuffed... we were primed to explode.
After clearing the table, our server brought us the desert menu, only for us to rapidly wave him away — “Please, no more...” — while patting our bloated bellies. However, he insisted we try the Ghazlieh, the Arabic version of cotton candy, topped with lotus-cookie chunks and caramel sauce. Our resolve already defeated by the mere description of this — and, honestly, what’s an Arabic feast without desert? — we gracefully acquiesced.
I woke up the next morning wishing I had had more of it. The featherlight cotton candy hairs melted into sugar crystals on the tip of our tongues while swing dancing with the cookie bits and caramel sauce, only to be lit up by the vanilla ice-cream hidden at the bottom.
Stop salivating and book a table.