I don't know whether the framed art on the walls and the record player sitting on top of a stack of albums in frayed sleeves are working to elevate the taste of the perfectly served food I see before me at Cabin in Dubai's Barsha South. Or, if it is the food I am served that is making me notice the quality of the art on the unfinished walls, and the quirky yet sophisticated interiors of the restaurant.
Whatever it is, it’s working. New restaurant Cabin is tucked surreptitiously behind Maisan Towers near Dubai Science Park, and yet, despite its unassuming location in a residential tower, or perhaps because of it, it is effortlessly cool.
I want to rifle through the Taschen art books on sale, and garner some sort of opinion on the conspicuous artwork, but I can’t. I’m unable to stop staring, mesmerised, as the chef behind the bar allows slivers of crisp bresaola to sink into the Hollandaise sauce on a plate of eggs Benedict, doing it as gently as if he were covering a babe in a cradle.
So, how do we describe this place? It’s part restaurant, part shop, part gallery, part personal studio space for an artist, part pet-friendly cafe. Basically, it’s many things. “It’s based on my studio in the Scottish highlands,” says Jonathan Gent, the British artist known for his abstract expressionism who started the cafe.
His bold paintings are collected by celebrities worldwide, including actors Tilda Swinton, Selma Blair, Ewan McGregor, Emily Mortimer, casting directors Des Hamilton and John Papsidera, and model Aimee Mullins. But, despite his fame and critical acclaim as an artist, it’s his passion for food – coupled with his eagerness to set up a studio in the UAE – that led him to create a version of his own personal Scottish cabin in the middle of the Dubai desert.
The original cabin is not a restaurant, but is a private space that works to inspire Gent on many levels. "When we're there, we're hunting, fishing foraging for everything, we live that lifestyle. We don't have a full kitchen up there, so when I invite people, they come up, look at what I've been working on, then we go fishing, bring that back, make a nice meal, gather together and spend quality time. It's me, my family, my friends.
"I wanted to bring that environment of music, light, creative energy and conversation into an urban setting like Dubai, and combine it with a real studio. This is really where I work," Gent says of the Dubai space.
The Barsha cafe is not exactly a log cabin in the snowy Scottish highlands, majestic fir trees and all, but there is a feeling of warmth in the unique multi-level space.
An outdoor courtyard is decorated with a mishmash of wrought iron furniture and concrete benches, and is surrounded by haphazard green vines and fallen leaves. This leads into an upper mezzanine space where Cabin’s merchandise is on display, almost as an afterthought. There are the Taschen books, but there’s also stationary and artist supplies designed by the multi-talented Gent: everything from travel journals to artist’s knives with sketches by Gent on the handles.
In the boutique space you will also find crisp white pinafores for little ones, and artists' smocks made out of Belgian linen. There are walking sticks carved by the artist with etchings in gold paint. There are handmade candles poured right here in Dubai and sturdy sketchbooks to have on hand when inspiration strikes.
That narrow shopping mezzanine overlooks the heart of the place: the dining and kitchen area, which is down some stairs and actually below ground. All of the cooking happens right there in front of the diners in the small open kitchen. This is head chef Aaron Jones’ domain.
The Brit, who hails from Cheshire, Gent's hometown in England, came from the Michelin-starred St Pierre restaurant in Singapore. His curriculum vitae was chosen out of more than 5,000 – he threw together a steak dinner in 15 minutes out of ingredients he gathered from Gent's refrigerator as part of his interview. That steak became a favourite on the Cabin menu, "we were practically obliged to include it, it was that good," admits Gent.
“Food to me is the real painting,” Gent says. He grew up living atop pubs and restaurants his whole life; his father was a restaurant manager, his mother a chef and his grandfather owned a slew of fish and chip shops. “I would go to sleep listening to that noise, that activity in a restaurant. It’s my comfort.” And food, insists Gent, is the “core of everything”.
“Our food is about simplicity and seasonality, but it’s also art on a plate,” he says.
The menu changes with the seasons and is redrafted weekly depending on what quality ingredients are on hand, but the breakfast options – everything from French toast, porridge and granola to Açai bowls, pastries and merguez sausage with eggs cooked every which way – are served all day, all the time.
“I want people to be eating here three times a week, so it needs to be affordable,” explains Gent. The rib-eye, served with beetroot, pickled mushrooms, potatoes and a “grass” sauce is Dh60; the porridge, cooked in almond milk and topped with super seeds, wild berries, bee pollen and honey yoghurt, is Dh35. The prawns used in the prawn tacos are caught fresh and bought from the local fish market every morning. The menu is covered with Gent’s doodles and drawings, jotted down during the weekly food meetings with the staff, who are affectionately called “food assistants”.
Supported by his business partner and co-founder, Emirati artist, art collector, designer and entrepreneur Rami Farook, who also uses the attached studio space, Gent set out to create an adaptable, ever-changing offering with Cabin. “Most restaurants don’t adapt, don’t change, and people become bored. Our natural movement is change – not a forced change – but we’re a studio, so everything changes naturally. The apparel we sell changes. The books come and go. The art on these walls is changing all the time.
“When we first opened we had a million dollars worth of art on here, an Andy Warhol original, a Damien Hirst original, a Sam Taylor Wood original, plenty of my art, Rami’s art, art by friends. And it all sold, and now the next batch is going up.”
The art changes. Sketches might go for just over Dh7,000, larger paintings for Dh35,000 and more. Then again, there will be drawings priced at Dh2,000 and there's a photography show planned for the spring months where prints will be priced from Dh150 to Dh350. "I want a 15-year-old kid to come and be able to drop thirty dollars on something he sees and likes," explains Gent.
Gent’s ever-present need to keep things changing is abundantly clear. A chess and jazz night will materialise soon, and maybe even live gigs.
A special seven-course iftar menu might be introduced for a few nights over Ramadan. Or Cabin’s usual working hours – 8am to 5pm during the week and 9am to 6pm on weekends – could be extended on the odd Saturday night to host a full tasting menu for interested guests. A cookbook, featuring Jones’s creative yet approachable food, is also in the works.
"This is a place where people can disappear or engage, where they can come to think or eat or chat or look or listen. A place to engage all their senses," says Gent. He then gives trying to capture the essence of the combination of spaces he has created one more shot: "Cabin is high-end plus dirt and soil. It's that combination of top and bottom. With kids and pets welcome," he concludes.