Feeling hungry? Then Dubai's not a bad place to be at the moment. The city's burgeoning restaurant scene is undoubtedly going from strength to strength. But with such a rich, diverse and varied menu to choose from, it's not always easy to keep a finger on its quickening culinary pulse. Since Dubai has a vibrant mix of nationalities, there's a restaurant, cafe or gourmet food shop to cater for almost every palate, yet rarely do they converge on one spot. Until Taste of Dubai rolls into town, that is.
The annual food festival - which begins today and ends four days and several thousand tasting portions later on Saturday - is a showcase for some of Dubai's top restaurants, chefs and gourmet food producers to demonstrate what they do best. It's also the ultimate yardstick of Dubai's progress as a gastronomic destination, and a handy barometer to identify new and emerging trends in the local restaurant scene.
As the name suggests, the festival is designed to give visitors a taste of what the high-end restaurants and gourmet shops of Dubai have to offer. This year, chefs from 23 local restaurants will be preparing 68 signature dishes, from Vineet Bhatia's chicken tikka in creamy tomato sauce with shiitake mushrooms and saffron pulao (Indego restaurant), to Matt Pickop's braised beef topside with sautéed celeriac and cep veloute (Verre by Gordon Ramsay). There will be a Taste Marketplace, where more than 50 food, drink and kitchen equipment exhibitors such as Organic Foods & Cafe and the Orbis Coffee Roastery will be dishing out free samples to capture your imagination, and of course your business. The tasting portions offer a mere appetiser in the hope that you'll venture out and explore further. So how accurately does the food at Taste of Dubai reflect what's really out there?
One of eight new restaurants appearing at the festival this year is Zuma. The modern Japanese concept is the brainchild of the German chef and restaurateur Rainer Becker, whose original award-winning London restaurant was brought to the Dubai International Financial Centre last Autumn. Along with Nobu, Okku and Momotaro, it's one of a slew of contemporary Japanese restaurants to open in the city in recent months, signalling a rising trend in this kind of cuisine. Zuma's head chef, Colin Clague, offered an explanation as to why this concept may have taken off. "It's very popular, very healthy. The sharing concept that we do, the izakaya concept, blends very nicely with the people over here - they're very familiar with the mezze-style type of dining experience. The izakaya is just a Japanese version of that, really. All the plates come down, they're shared and nobody gets an individual dish."
Clague will be preparing Zuma's signature dishes of chilli fried squid with lime, seared beef with oriental dressing and barley miso marinated chicken legs on cedar wood at the festival. Momotaro is another Japanese restaurant with a modern twist that will be represented at Taste of Dubai. Yet the food being prepared by its head chef, Junichi Kawamura, is likely to be along more traditional lines. The Momotaro sashimi lounge will offer maguro (tuna) sashimi, ebi (prawn) sushi and teritori maki rolls with chicken teriyaki, spring onion and cucumber on its menu.
But is there any danger that Dubai will become overrun by this new wave of Japanese places? Zuma's owner Becker doesn't think so: "You can't go to Nobu four times a week. You need variety." Nobu may have plenty of healthy competition these days, but do the traditional fine-dining restaurants that were once the mainstay of the high-end restaurant scene in Dubai feel under pressure to change their recipes as the demand for more contemporary food grows?
Sylvain Gohier is the head chef at Cafe Chic, a French fine-diner that operates under the patronage of the two-Michelin star chef Philippe Gauvreau. Gohier has only been at the helm at Cafe Chic for four months, but his travels have helped him to identify a shift in the market. "I was working before in Switzerland, Cyprus and France, and fine dining is still popular everywhere. But we see French fine-dining with a little bit of Asian food now, Japanese food." At Taste of Dubai, Gohier will be presenting three signature dishes, but he is aware that his food must reflect the diverse international mix of people at the festival. "We will have three different things on our menu, one starter of tomato gazpacho, a main course of pan-fried scallops and we'll finish with strawberry cappuccino yoghurt. It's special food from Cafe Chic - it's what the people want in Dubai. We cannot just do the French kitchen, we need to adapt everything."
If Dubai is a market that often panders to fashionable foods, then it positively salivates at the prospect of a fashionable chef. And in the last 12 months alone, they've been coming to Dubai in droves. The French chef Pierre Gagnaire opened his Reflets restaurant at the Intercontinental Dubai Festival City last May. And arriving with Matsuhisa at The Atlantis hotel were Michel Rostang, Santi Santamaria and the Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli. The latter will be showing off his skills at Taste of Dubai in a series of live cooking demonstrations alongside the British celebrity chef Gary Rhodes (whose Rhodes Mezzanine opened in Dubai in 2007).
What typifies Locatelli's food is a dedication to fine and authentic ingredients, yet he knows that not everything he needs will be readily available in a place such as Dubai due to its heavy reliance on imported ingredients. "There were some compromises, but ingredient by ingredient, we kind of matched what we wanted. In some cases we have tuned the recipe to the ingredients," he recently revealed. "But that's something that has made Italian cuisine what it is. If you go to America and you talk about Italian cuisine, it's different to what real Italian cuisine is. There they had a few key ingredients, but they built their own cuisine around it." Whether we will see such innovations as a Dubai-style pizza in the near future remains to be seen, but Locatelli raises an important point about the availability of ingredients influencing certain trends in the city. "In London it's easy to pick up the phone and call Italy, and you'll get something delivered the day after," he said. "Here in Dubai, you have to plan a little bit more. So we don't go for such an adventurous menu as we do in London."
If a chef's creativity is tested by the ingredients he has to work with, a restaurant's credibility will also be affected if it can't source the very best raw materials. Dubai's obsession with having the best of the best is what drew many high-profile chefs to its shores in the first place. But Zuma's Clague believes that the presence of more big names in the city will drive up the need for better quality ingredients, which is far more important than the culinary fashions of the day. "I'm not into trends, but what I think Dubai has to do - especially with the economic situation that's going down - is to consolidate and start getting better ingredients in," he said. "There are a lot of restaurants in this town that have had to put up with what I would call second-rate ingredients. But I think the likes of us, Nobu, Ducasse, Gagnaire and some of the new guys coming in, we won't accept that, so the quality of the ingredients in Dubai will start to go up."
But is it just the top chefs who won't accept second-rate ingredients? The consumer is becoming increasingly savvy too when it comes to food in restaurants, thanks in no small part to public festivals like Taste of Dubai. The head chef of Legends steakhouse and one of the event's chief participators is Max Grenard, who believes that more diners than ever before are in the know. "I can say that it's because of the media and education that people are knowing what they are buying," he insisted. "As soon as you put Wagyu beef on the menu, funnily enough it's the most expensive meat, yet it's the one that you serve most. People know that the quality is better and they go for it."
Expensive Wagyu beef remains one of the best-selling items on the Legends menu, in spite of the credit crunch. But while Grenard doesn't see that changing, he warns that in these economically challenged times, restaurants will not be able to pass off products of an inferior quality and still charge high prices. "Today, people want good value for money - only if the quality is there will people buy expensive things."
Aside from the fine food, live entertainment and sweeping overview of Dubai's evolving restaurant and gourmet food scene, a little culinary education is surely reason enough to give Taste of Dubai a nibble. firstname.lastname@example.org For tickets and more information, visit www.tasteofdubai09.com