Just two months after Dubai got its first Jamaican restaurant, Ting Irie, a second one has arrived. Miss Lily’s – a joint that originated in New York City – opened in July at the Sheraton Grand Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road.
After my meal there last week, I can say with some authority that Dubai now has two very good Jamaican restaurants.
The two venues offer decidedly different experiences. Located downtown on the Boulevard, Ting Irie is bright, airy, friendly and fun, while Miss Lily’s is a secretive space tucked away in a warehouse container on the fifth floor of Sheraton.
It emits a funky, hypnotising vibe that leaves me feeling like an extra in a Quentin Tarantino movie.
The venue is exploding with colours, but it is dimly lit. The walls are plastered with labels made to look like vinyl records, all Jamaican groups, and the music matches. It exudes Caribbean cool mixed with New York street cred. I feel good here.
There is a bar and lounge area beside the entrance (where smoking is permitted), with a couple of long dining tables. There is also an elevated space with comfortable seating that is better suited for lounging than eating.
The main dining room is small – just a handful of round booths and a row of (too) small tables. We take a seat at a table for two, which is uncomfortably close to the one beside us. The tables are so closely packed together that, when they fill up, you lose any hope of intimacy.
The menu is concise, with four items from the jerk grill, three family-style sharing dishes, and just five signature mains. There are 10 small plates and appetisers, though, offering plenty of options for a tapas-style meal.
We start with jerk corn and salt cod fritters. The charred corn – served on a skewer – is slathered in jerk mayonnaise and rolled in an abundance of toasted coconut. One bite and I am blown away. I have never had corn with this much flavour and I am surprised to say that out loud – am I actually talking about corn?
It is a festival for the senses: the Caribbean-island smell, the crunchy texture and the mix of sweet and salty in my mouth. It is outstanding, an absolute must-try dish.
The fritters are bite-sized fried balls packed with a thick mash of cod. Salt fish fritters are a common Jamaican appetiser, much in the same way chicken wings are eaten in other parts of the world. The texture and flavour immediately elicit a memory of the crispy, mouth-watering conch fritters I bought from an unkempt fisherman on a Caribbean road 10 years ago.
My dining companion thought the fritters – a new taste for him – were too bland, but for someone who has had them before, these are great. Importantly, they are served with an exquisite sauce that combines mayonnaise, curry and scotch bonnet peppers. My advice: do not skip the sauce. It is good enough to eat by itself and I do. We get the signature jerk chicken and the curried goat stew for our mains. The half chicken is packed with flavour but a bit overdone. The pot of sweet mango chutney balances the spiciness well, but there is not enough of it.
Fortunately, the curried goat is perfectly cooked with tender, juicy chunks of meat in a hearty stew with carrots, potatoes and peas. If you like goat, you will love this.
Our side dishes are, unfortunately, forgettable. The sweet plantains are too dry, a result, more than likely, of them not being ripe enough before frying. I’ve made this mistake in my own kitchen. Patience – waiting for those plantains to ripen until they look rotten – is required to get them right.
The Jamaican-braised greens with black bean and pickled chilli tastes more Asian than Caribbean, and is too bitter for our taste.
The desserts fall a bit flat, too. The dark chocolate cremeux is a bowlful of interesting-enough ingredients – dense chocolate pudding, cocoa crumble, passion-fruit curd, chunks of coconut macaroons and passion-fruit sorbet. But I do not love – or even like – the taste when these all come together.
The doughnut holes are simpler, and better, but lack quality control. They come with a choice of Nutella or guava filling. While a couple of these small, fried balls of dough ooze with filling (and are delicious), others barely have enough to justify the effort it takes to get it in there.
Miss Lily’s does justice to the flavours of the Caribbean and its modern, urban vibe takes the whole experience to a funky new level. The food alone is worth a trip here, and the atmosphere will keep people buzzing.
• Our meal for two at Miss Lily’s in the Sheraton Grand Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road cost Dh504. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and conducted incognito. To book, call 04 354 4074