Food for thought: Idris Phillips

Dubai based singer-songwriter and producer Idris Phillips talks about the holy month means to him and working with UAE music talent.

Idris Phillips at Em Sherif  in The Address Downtown Dubai. Satish Kumar / The National
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“I am normally pretty adventurous with food,” Idris Phillips says as we take our seats for iftar. “I can pretty much eat anything as long as it doesn’t have eyes looking at me.”

We are in Em Sharif, the popular Beirut restaurant that opened recently in The Address Downtown Dubai.

Its reputation attracts a large crowd, with tables full of Lebanese families and friends savouring the blend of home-cooked dishes and classy service that’s a hallmark of Lebanon’s dining scene.

What stands out, however, is the venue’s slightly gothic design – with its dark-grey paint, high ceilings, black lace curtains and bow-tied staff, Em Sherif resembles the Addams Family mansion, had they settled in Beirut.

There is nothing peculiar about the food, however – this was strictly Lebanese fare, immaculately prepared and presented. Rather than a buffet, the iftar is a set menu that, although split into three parts (cold and hot mezze and dessert), feels like a 10-course feast courtesy of the number of plates that keeps piling up on our table over the course of the evening.

Phillips is content. This is the American singer-songwriter’s third Ramadan in the UAE, after moving from California to join the Let the Change Be Studio in Dubai as an in house producer in 2012.

Polishing off the last of his creamy lentil soup and nibbling the fatoush with seasoned aubergine, Phillips says he welcomes the fast despite the soaring temperatures.

“It is really a blessed time,” he says. “When I fast, I just feel that my spiritual awareness increases. It’s interesting in that my energy level comes down, but at the same time, it does result in me reflecting that little bit more.”

Such as what it means to be living in a Muslim country for the first time. “Waking up to the sound of the adthan [call to prayer],” he says. “You don’t hear this in the States and there is something really beautiful about it and you don’t get that anywhere else – I feel it will be hard to leave this region just because of that.”

We are into the hot mezzes now, a colourful display of plates such as prawns sautéed in a sweet tomato curry, a cracking kibbeh which is crunchy on the outside with a filling of ground, lean beef and minced onions that melts in your mouth, and that classic Lebanese dish of chicken liver with pomegranate molasses.

Phillips is delighted with the range and combination of flavours on offer. It tickles him not only as a food lover but as a music producer and songwriter, who released his debut album Star By Moon last year.

Working with aspiring talent in the UAE at the Let the Change Be Studio, he says collaborating on good songs works best when inspirations blend together perfectly, like any great meal.

“I like to use the style from the region as opposed to simply imposing my stuff – it should be a marriage of the two,” he says. “When it works, it sounds very beautiful. Because what it is really is the sound of joint ­respect.”

With growing word-of-mouth acclaim for the beautiful, understated folk songs on Star By Moon, Phillips is dedicating a major part of this year to performances and travelling abroad to host songwriting workshops.

Don’t ask him, however, to think any further ahead than that, he says, as we valiantly attempt to tackle the desserts that includes mahalabiya (milk custard laced with rosewater) and a decadent Um Ali.

“I am not one of those who say: ‘I have a five-year plan,’ or something like that,” he says.

“If I can continue challenging myself, creating and being able to make someone happy, then I am more than OK with that.”

• Iftar at Em Sherif is Dh320 inclusive of Ramadan-inspired beverages. For details, call 04 424 3000 or

Every Thursday during Ramadan, we sit down to iftar/suhoor with well-known personalities to discuss their experiences during the holy month.