How meat-first restaurants in the UAE are adapting to green trends

Butchers and steakhouses on sustainability, quality over quantity, and vegetarian menus

Mushroom steak on Carna by Dario Cecchini's vegetarian menu. Photo: Jure Ursic Photography
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In a private tasting room at Carna by Dario Cecchini, chef Claudio Cardoso is cooking up a storm.

As the Dubai restaurant's name suggests, Carna is a steakhouse; the tasting room itself is adorned with exquisite cuts of meat. However, the demonstration Cardoso is focused on isn’t for a steak or burger, but rather a vegan tartare: perfectly seasoned chopped tomatoes and watermelon on a sweet and tangy bread topping, akin to a bruschetta.

To hear a steak chef talk about all things plant-based ― from “ugly vegetables” to local farms ― while being surrounded by meaty cuts, is unusual. And yet, it’s perfectly in line with global trends that have been changing the way we think about and eat food.

The spotlight is firmly trained on plant-based ingredients and health-promoting recipes. In January 2022, more than 600,000 people signed up for Veganuary, while in the UK, one in four Britons actively cut down on animal products during the pandemic, according to a report by The Vegan Society.

Whether this is for animal welfare, self or environmental health, or simply personal choice, the numbers are adding up. With people around the world cutting down on meat consumption, we examine how steakhouses and meat-first restaurants are adapting to changing times and trends.

Increase in quality, decrease in quantity

Quality has become the first port of call for many conscientious carnivores. Mirco Beutler, founder of The Dry Age Boutique, likens eating fine cuts of meat — specifically dry-aged meat — to buying jewellery. “You don’t buy it every day; you buy it for an occasion.”

The luxury concept store opened its first UAE branch in Wafi Mall last May, complete with a tasting room where guests can sample selections before purchase. The boutique aims to be an educational experience for meat lovers in the UAE, with plans to launch in Abu Dhabi this year.

The dry-aging process, which is a new trend in the region, involves the use of specific refrigeration, UVC disinfection and humidity-controlled environment, to allow the meat to mature over time. This breaks down muscle, creating more tender meat and changes the flavour profile, too.

“After 30 days, which is the common cut-off for dry ageing, the meat will have a slightly nutty flavour, which is not overpowering,” says Beutler. “After 45 to 50 days, this flavour gets even more intensified. At anywhere between 75 and 100 days, the concept is similar to that of enjoying blue cheese. That is, it is for a specific type of client.”

There is a growing appetite for dry-aged meat in the region, he says. Over the last few years, Beutler has collaborated with burger brands such as Pickl and High Joint. He has also had requests from customers about home dry-aging fridges, especially during the pandemic.

Despite this, there’s reason to believe the popularity of dry-aged meat doesn’t equate to increased meat consumption. As with fine dark chocolate, "a small slab of which can satiate cravings just as well as a whole bar of store-bought candy", Beutler says dry-aged meat "is not a daily product. It’s more of a celebration of the fact we are eating an animal. I would say it brings more caution in the way we are eating."

Another reason dry-aged meat is consumed less is its higher price tag. At The Dry Aged Boutique, prices range from Dh395 for a kilogram of Angus MS 3-4, to Dh2,225 per kg of exclusive cuts such as the 9+ Wagyu and Japanese A5.

In a sense, Beutler believes it could encourage more sustainable eating habits. “If you’re trying to eat less meat, you should be eating the highest quality meat available.”

It’s an ethos shared by Riccardo Giraudi, founder of Beefbar, a steakhouse from Monaco that recently reopened in Dubai. Giraudi says he has seen a huge change in meat consumption within the luxury premium segment.

“More and more people are going towards excellence, primarily Wagyu, and don’t only opt for traditional steak." He's also seen more people gravitate towards smaller bites, with dishes such as jasmine-tea-smoked Kobe beef bao buns and croque sando being popular.

“Of course, steaks still play a big role; at the end of the day, we serve what it says on the tin. But I also think people eat less meat these days; and if they choose to do so, they go for the best.”

Vegetarian menus at meat-first restaurants

Beefbar has branches around the world and a celebrity clientele. Its latest branch in Jumeirah Al Naseem marks the first time the brand has reopened within the same city (it was previously operating from DIFC until 2019).

“I felt it was important for the brand to be located in Dubai again, given the large number of international cities we are present in. Our brand has evolved over time in order to stay current.”

A refined menu is a big part of this evolution. The steak section is smaller, and there’s an array of street food from around the world, plus a wok, barbecue and steam section.

More notably, the team have adapted the menu to include vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian dishes, called the “Leafbar” and “Reefbar" sections, respectively.

“We have tried to embrace the [vegan and vegetarian] movement as much as possible and are offering many succulent dishes as part of Leafbar. We are also launching standalone Leafbar restaurants in Monaco and hopefully London,” says Giraudi.

“This does not mean we’re moving away from meat, but that we are transforming the same cuisine, the same signature dishes that made our beef so special, into a vegetarian or vegan option. Recently, a lot of new start-ups have launched alternative meats made from various types of vegetable proteins. They have caught my eye and I am looking at distributing them together with the meats from my other companies.”

If you're wondering what vegetarian options to try in a meat-lover’s paradise, Giraudi recommends the rock corn and cauliflower steaks in tahini salsa verde.

Carna by Dario Cecchini is another meat-lover’s haven that has recently launched a vegetarian menu: think roasted beet salad with goat's cheese; grilled lettuce salad with truffle honey; mushroom steak with rosemary, roasted garlic and olive oil; cauliflower steak with roasted eggplant puree and piquillo pepper salad; beetroot tortellini; truffle cannoli and a grilled vegetable platter. Delicious options all, which may well tempt the average carnivore to put down the steak knife and try some greens, too.

Getting creative with initiatives and ingredients

Cecchini champions himself as a sustainable butcher, and someone who recognises the gravitas of taking an animal’s life, so it is only fitting that he is intent on ensuring it is not in vain.

It’s why he subscribes to the “nose-to-tail” method of cooking, where no part of the animal goes to waste.

“Unfortunately, the meat industry today is divided into better-known cuts and lesser-known cuts, and the best-known ones such as fillet, steaks and prime rib are by far the most popular,” he says. “But instead of being based on a difference in quality, the lesser-known cuts can be equally as delicious; we lack information, that is, and there are fewer and fewer artisan butchers with the knowledge to explain how to use every cut well.”

So, scan the menu at Carna and you’ll find fine cuts alongside dishes such as marinated grilled beef heart skewers, as well as Il Bollito di Dario, which comprises less popular cuts such as veal tongue, beef cheek and veal belly, all slow-cooked.

More recently, Cecchini launched a new restaurant Il Macello di Bolgheri, along the Tuscan coast that offers 11 dishes made only from beef forequarter. “There is no T-bone, there is no ribeye. We serve bavette, grilled ribs, et cetera, and our clients are extremely satisfied.”

Finally, it’s not just about creating a new vegetarian menu, but watching where the ingredients come from. With carbon footprint becoming a buzzword over the past few years, more brands are looking for ways to reduce theirs. At Carna, this translates to looking at local farms for fresh produce, therefore minimising vegetables flown in.

In the UAE, the majority of meat is flown in from other countries but, as Giraudi notes, there are creative ways to get around this. “From this year onwards, we have decided to buy carbon credits that go towards planting trees primarily in deforested areas. It’s just one more way we are trying to adapt creatively and sustainably towards the future whilst being proud of our heritage.”

Updated: May 11, 2022, 4:49 AM