Hidden gems of the UAE: lesser-known Dubai restaurants where chefs and foodies go to eat

From all-you-can-eat Wagyu to sugar-sprinkled chicken pies, the experts reveal their favourite places for a grub in the emirate

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Start with a pinch of zaatar, add a teaspoon of turmeric, mix in a dollop of miso and finish with a drop of gunpowder tea. Mix it all together and you’ve got the perfect metaphor for the culinary melting pot that is the UAE.

With more than 200 nationalities calling the Emirates home, there’s an endless supply of flavours and cuisines from all four corners of the globe, many of which have been passed down through generations and travelled thousands of miles to make their way to your plate.

In this series of guides, we speak to the experts – the tour guides, the photographers and the artists – to unveil the UAE’s hidden gems.

For our fifth instalment we’re talking to the UAE foodies to scope out the best places to eat – a task so mammoth that we’ve split it into two, starting with the experts who have eaten their way around Dubai.

Vegetarian Indian, izakaya-style and Korean barbecue

Since arriving in the UAE as CÉ LA VI’s executive chef, Howard Ko has embarked on a culinary journey inside and outside of the kitchen. “My favourite breakfast place is Saarangaa Bhojan Shala, a vegetarian Indian restaurant that I go to in Business Bay,” he says.

“I always have the potato masala dosa there, but all of the dosas are incredible and come with a range of different chutneys. The flavours are amazing and it’s definitely one of my favourite places to eat in the city. The whole menu is just so comforting.”

A three-minute drive from Saarangaa lies Kimuraya, tucked away in The Oberoi, Dubai, providing an authentic izakaya-style dining experience.

“I go here for authentic Japanese shabu shabu and they have a great deal with The Entertainer app on weekdays. For Dh300, two people get all you can eat Wagyu with all different kinds of soups and dipping sauces. I love the Australian Wagyu, it’s super tender and I love the broth.”

With 11 years of culinary experience under his belt, Ko knows what makes a good meal better than most. After graduating from The Culinary Institute of America in New York, whose alumni include Anthony Bourdain and Grant Achatz, he worked at the likes of DANIEL, Picholine and The French Laundry, before making his move to the Middle East in 2019, where he has committed himself to seeking out the city’s most authentic flavours.

“I love Sonamu at the Asiana Hotel in Deira, which is a Korean barbecue restaurant,” he says. “Not a lot of people know about it because it’s nestled away in a small hotel in the old side of town but it’s one of my favourites and being a Korean-American myself, it’s the closest I can get to authentic Korean food.”

The best diavola pizza and pide

For chef Nick Alvis, much of Dubai’s food scene has changed during his 12 years in the city, with home-grown concepts and local chefs becoming firm favourites with diners – and Alvis himself.

As one half of the brains behind folly by Nick and Scott, Alvis has seen his fair share of success on the city’s dining scene, winning a string of accolades including being named on The World's 50 Best Discovery list, an offshoot of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards.

But when it comes to eating out on his own time, Alvis prefers something more low-key.

“I’ve recently discovered Motorino in JBR, which is not the flashiest of locations but the pizza is really good,” he says. “I’m a sucker for a diavola pizza, I just can’t order anything else and Motorino has got it perfected.”

Alvis is also a huge fan of Orfali Bros, a creative kitchen with international flair nestled in Wasl 51 mall in Jumeirah 1.

“I tend to champion local chefs because they're doing some really good things now in the region,” says Alvis. “Orfali Bros is brilliant, they’re doing some really cool stuff and I love the food.

“The pides are beautiful and there are some incredible red umami prawns with tomato dashi, aji rocoto and olive oil. They’re a bit messy but absolutely delicious and the fresh fattoush with herb puree is just amazing.”

Uzbek, Asian and Moroccan cuisines

Dubai-born foodie Arva Ahmed has made a living out of exploring the city’s lesser-known eateries, leaving no crust unturned.

As the co-founder of Frying Pan Adventures, Ahmed takes authenticity very seriously and, for Uzbek food, nothing compares to Donaza Restaurant in Al Nahda.

“Donaza is an unassuming little Uzbek place with traditional decorations and embroidered tablecloths, but other than that it’s really bare-bones,” she says. “They have a mix of traditional Uzbek and Russian foods and their beef samsa is fantastic. It’s basically a beef samosa but in a pie-like shell. It’s super crunchy and crisp on the outside and the meat inside is really well seasoned.”

Ahmed’s second recommendation is Oriental Dining, a no-frills Asian-style eatery that recently relocated to Al Barsha from Fujairah.

“Everything on their menu is pretty amazing, but the highlight is the salted egg squid, which is off the charts,” she says. “They also have steamed teochew fish and a great Malaysian curry. I can’t recommend this place enough and it’s very popular with the people who actually know that it’s there.”

Ahmed’s final nod is an insider secret that is all but hidden to unknowing passersby in Abu Hail. “From the outside, Tajin wa Tanjiah looks like a little hole in the wall but when you step in you’re suddenly whisked away to Morocco.”

The authenticity also extends to the menu, which is packed full of flavourful dishes prepared using traditional techniques. And for Ahmed, the proof is in the pie.

“I love their bastilla, which is a traditional pie from Fes,” she says. “It’s a mixture of shredded chicken, eggs, almonds and spices encased in a really thin papery crisp shell which shatters beautifully.

“The top of it is sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon for a beautiful combination of sweet and savoury that the Moroccans have really perfected.”

Lastly, Ahmed recommends washing everything down with a cup of Moroccan gunpowder green tea. “They perform the traditional art of pouring the tea from a daredevil height and it’s the best way to end the meal,” she says.

“Dubai’s food scene is just incredible – especially when you leave the crowds behind.”

Eight lesser-known restaurants in Dubai:

  • Saarangaa Bhojan Shala, Business Bay
  • Kimuraya, The Oberoi, Dubai, Business Bay
  • Sonamu, Asiana Hotel, Deira
  • Motorino, JBR
  • Orfali Bros, Wasl 51
  • Donaza Restaurant, Al Nahda
  • Oriental Dining, Al Barsha
  • Tajin wa Tanjiah, Abu Hail
Updated: December 15, 2021, 2:41 PM