DUBAI: The Michelin Guide — the restaurant industry’s most-respected guidebook — will launch its Dubai edition this month in partnership with Dubai Tourism. That has led some skeptics to speculate that the list will be filled with international headliners in tourist-friendly venues. But it’s not uncommon for Michelin to partner with tourism boards for its guides, and the company has stressed that “one star in Dubai equals one star in Paris.”
Michelin inspectors visit venues multiple times, anonymously. That’s something of a rarity in a region where reviewers (often non-specialist journalists like this writer) are usually invited for a free meal booked well in advance, ensuring they receive the best possible experience. None of Dubai’s thousands of restaurants will know when a Michelin inspector might be assessing their dishes. And that can only be a good thing.
Arab News spoke with three respected Dubai foodies to get their take on where the city’s dining scene stands, compared to the great culinary cities of the world, and what they hoped might be improved by Michelin’s arrival. All agreed that, in culinary terms, Dubai is in good health, but also that it has some way to go to match up to the international greats.
“I think the sign of a matured — not maturing — dining scene is when you have more homegrown concepts than imported concepts,” said Samantha Wood, founder of the impartial restaurant review website FooDiva.net. “That’s where Dubai is at now. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s on a par with Paris, London, New York or Tokyo — there’s still some way to go, especially when it comes to modern Emirati and Middle Eastern concepts — but Dubai’s certainly heading in the right direction.”
Her sentiments were echoed by chef and cookbook author Dalia Dogmoch Soubra. “When I came to Dubai in 2007, it impressed me on a diversity level; there were a lot of really good, really authentic cuisines. I know there’s this image of Dubai’s restaurants as just being expensive with not-so-great food, but I disagree. I think it’s improved a lot,” she said, adding that, in the fine-dining category, Dubai remains exorbitantly priced. “I’m not surprised that the Michelin Guide is coming; I think it’s about time that Dubai got noticed. But I don’t necessarily think the usual suspects are the best restaurants here.”
Wood, too, stressed the range of quality options in Dubai. “Name a cuisine and you’ll find a good example,” she said. “The only city that might be comparable is Singapore, where you can get really good food across practically any cuisine under the sun. You don’t necessarily get that in Paris, Tokyo, New York or London.”
While there are definite advantages to basing your restaurant in Dubai — the opportunity for a great seafront setting, or an impressive view of the city’s famous skyline, for example — chefs in the UAE have some significant challenges when it comes to matching up to their international counterparts. One challenge in particular.
“Dubai is one of the most competitive markets in the world,” said Courtney Brandt, food writer and content creator. “I really believe in the chefs in this city, but I don’t know that we have three-star (the highest Michelin rank) restaurants in the UAE currently. There are reasons for that that are unrelated to the chefs: We don’t have access to the produce. If I’m in a three-star in France, the produce might all come from within five kilometers of that restaurant. Unfortunately, because of the growing conditions in the UAE, we don’t have that.”
“Ingredients have to be flown in, and that affects quality, flavor, seasonality of menus, and price point. So that’s definitely a challenge here,” Wood said.
While all three women believe the situation is improving, particularly when it comes to fruit and vegetables, with the opening of hydroponic farms and locally sourced concepts, they unanimously agree that there’s a long way to go.
“I find challenges even in the ‘best’ restaurants in Dubai when it comes to good red meat,” said Soubra. “It does hold Dubai back.”
For many diners, the lack of fresh produce can be mitigated by great service, or a fantastic view, or an entertaining experience. But Michelin bases its recognition purely on food. “Service, atmosphere, location, price point — none of those come into play,” Wood explained. “It’s all about the quality of food and how the chef interprets that. It’s very focused.”
For Brandt, another thing holding Dubai back is the city’s ‘Big is best’ approach, which can lead to expensive mistakes for would-be restaurateurs. “The transiency does break my heart. To me, that comes down to market research. There’s a sweet spot that isn’t really being addressed, which is that 30- to 40-seat restaurant. We always go big here, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’d love to see a trend towards smaller restaurants.”
All three interviewees are hopeful that Michelin’s arrival will see Dubai’s restaurants raise their game. “I think we’ll start to see an elevated food experience with the rise of tasting menus, more creative cooking, more chef-led concepts,” said Wood.
But they expect a handful of the city’s bigger names, who might anticipate recognition, to be disappointed.
“There are many concepts that are very trendy — somewhere like Nusr-Et, or Roberto’s — where you’re going for the experience and it’s not really about the food that much, as long as the food’s ‘good enough,’” said Soubra, adding that she has not been to Roberto’s since before the COVID-19 pandemic. “And there should be those places; they’re great for a Friday night, when you want to celebrate a promotion or something, and you’re 28 and you’re out with friends. But then there are those places that don’t necessarily hit the ambience and the crowd boxes, but you’re there for the food, so you don’t care.” She cited long-established seafood restaurant Bu Qtair as an example of the latter.
Soubra continued: “I hope those places that are (just) very trendy, and have made a lot of social-media noise, won’t make it — on a culinary integrity level.” She stressed, however, that because a concept is imported, doesn’t mean it should be disregarded. “Credit’s due where it’s due. I’m not necessarily a Zuma fan, per se, but if you compare Zuma Dubai with Zuma London, Dubai beats it for sure.”
The three food lovers all expressed their hope, though, that the guide will shy away from big-name international chains (unless their food truly deserves recognition) to focus on homegrown concepts.
“I’m always more interested in the local story,” Brandt said. “I’m not so interested in the chain restaurants that (are) in other places. Not taking anything away from those chefs, but I want something I can experience only in this one place and time.”
“I hope the majority of (featured) restaurants are independent, homegrown, and chef-led, because only then will the guide be interesting and compelling. If we go down the route of imported concepts attached to celebrity chefs, it’s eye-rolling and very boring,” said Wood. “You want this guide to attract culinary tourism, so you want (people) to say, ‘That sounds really interesting. I want to go to Dubai.’ And the only way they’ll do that is if there’s a name in there they’ve never heard of.”
“If there are 10 Michelin stars in Dubai, or 100, then that’s wonderful,” said Soubra. “But maybe there aren’t any, right? And maybe we should just say that. What I want to see is places being judged on merit. Dubai lacks consistency of judgement (at the moment). I’m really curious to see what makes the list.”