From eating on the beach to sunrise picnics in the desert, cooking classes that offer an insight into Emirati food and chef-led dinner parties that will make you the envy of your friends, here are some of the UAE's most unusual dining experiences.
Fish Beach Taverna : Eat on the sand
The decor at Fish Beach Taverna is dreamy; all whitewashed walls, myriad shades of azure blue and beach-chic furnishings. The open-air dining area is lovely, as is the seating on the grassy area at the front of the restaurant, which then spills out onto the beach. For the most memorable of dining experiences, though, spending an afternoon or evening relaxing in the restaurant’s fairy-lights-bedecked private tepee is a must. This is the antithesis of a pretentious, overly formal dining experience: kick off your shoes the moment you arrive, let toes sink into the sand and settle down on one of the scatter cushions strewn over the floor.
The food is simple and Aegean-inspired, and suits the location and vibe perfectly: graze on an array of hot and cold mezze, squeeze lemons on freshly grilled fish and tuck into dishes such as octopus drizzled with olive oil and thyme, or tiger prawns with chilli and garlic. Whether you’re enjoying a fun-filled evening with a group of friends or are having a romantic night out, it all feels very different.
Fish Beach Taverna, Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina. For more information, visit www.fish-dubai.com or call 04 511 7373
Learn to cook Emirati food at the Radisson Blu Deira Creek
When, a little more than five years ago, Arva Ahmed founded Frying Pan Adventures, which offers walking and eating tours of the UAE, she did so with the intention of raising awareness of Emirati food and cooking. As she points out, to really understand the place that you are living in or visiting, it's important to get your head around its food and history.
After meeting with chef Uwe Micheel – who as president of the Emirates Culinary Guild and author of cookbook Flavours of Dubai, is similarly committed to teaching people about local food – an idea was born. The Emirati cooking classes that run at Aseelah restaurant at the Radisson Blu Deira Creek are the result, and they really do show that the best way to educate yourself on a subject is to experience it first-hand. In this case, that means a few hours spent watching, listening, learning, chopping, tasting and helping to cook traditional dishes in the restaurant kitchen, alongside chef Rabeh Amer.
It is billed as an interactive demo, with guests invited to be as hands-on as they like: watch Amer prepare margooga stew, saffron-infused sago pudding and cardamom-scented date bread, or get involved with kneading, mixing and plating. As well as the demonstration, guests get to sit down to a lunch featuring traditional and modern Emirati dishes. You will leave with a full stomach and plenty of newfound knowledge, plus recipe cards and a supply of the restaurant's signature spice blend.
For more information, visit www.fryingpanadventures.com or call 056 471 8244
Experience a desert safari with a difference
If your idea of a desert safari involves camels, a belly dancer and a bit of dune bashing, then stop and think again. The Offbeat Dubai Desert Safari offers something entirely different and fulfilling. This is a safari that bucks all the touristy cliches and instead embraces nature, learning and environmental protection. Firstly, it is set in the vast Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve and groups are limited to 12 people. The route, meanwhile, is specifically designed to inspire and allow guests to engage with the terrain while learning as much as possible about its animal inhabitants. The tours are run in partnership with the Royal Shaheen team of falconers, who are not only experts on desert birds and put on an in-depth falconry show, but are also hugely knowledgeable about the land, its flora, fauna and ecosystem. Exploring by foot means there are photo opportunities galore and the chance to contribute to the survival of the desert landscape; in collaboration with Goumbook's Give a Ghaf programme, each group is invited to name and plant a ghaf tree. A shared meal that is in itself a lesson in delicious simplicity follows those activities, and showcases unshowy, high-quality Middle Eastern food and ingredients provided by local company Baker & Spice – think labneh, feta, zaatar, freshly made bread with homemade preserves, tahini and date syrup. Eaten communally and on the sand, it is wholesome and nourishing, much like the experience itself.
No hands allowed at this American-style seafood restaurant
Knives, forks and plates are overrated. This is certainly the sentiment of the De Leon family, who are behind Hooked, an American-style seafood boil restaurant in Abu Dhabi that they believe is the first in the region.
For those not familiar with the concept, this is delicious, crowd-pleasing, low-maintenance eating at its best. A seafood boil classically includes fresh seafood (shell-on crab, mussels, lobster, crayfish and prawns) cooked together in a giant pot, often with aromatics and spices, plus potatoes, garlic, onions and corn on the cob. Once ready, the contents of the pot are tipped into the middle of a table lined with newspaper – and everyone gets cracking. At Hooked, the drill is pretty much the same. First, select your catch (prawns, lobsters, salmon, crab claws, and both snow and king-crab legs), pick your sauce (lemon pepper, garlic butter, the house speciality or salted egg), then choose whether you want the spice level to hover at mild, medium or hot. The mantra here is "the messier, the merrier", and there isn't a plate or piece of cutlery in sight, although your communal table will be furnished with a disposable tablecloth, napkins and a shell cracker. The atmosphere is buzzy, the industrial vibe feels refreshing – and who doesn't relish popping on an apron before getting stuck into dinner?
Hooked, 20th Al Douj Street (near City Seasons Hotel), Abu Dhabi. For more information, visit www.hooked.ae or call 02 626 9918
This chef will teach you and your friends how to cook the perfect dish - at your own house
Have you ever been to a gathering at a friend's house and felt like the kitchen was the funnest place to be – everybody chatting away, helping out the host, spoons cheekily diving into dishes for a quick taste? Well, the next time you are entertaining, how about bringing the party quite literally into your kitchen by staging a cooking class there?
James Hitchens has more than 14 years of experience as a chef, having worked extensively in restaurants in the United Kingdom and UAE, as well as cooking on superyachts, villas and chalets the world over. In short, he knows his stuff, and with his latest concept, Hitchens Kitchens, you can too. He offers a range of different classes – from the basics (such as learning how to serve the perfect steak, rustling up a roast with panache and conquering your fear of cooking fish) to more recipe-focused lessons covering everything from healthy eats to canapés, as well as sessions focused on how to take your cooking to the next level and hone your hosting skills. Hitchens lets you select the dishes you would like to master (pan-seared scallops with cauliflower foam, apples and pea shoots, anyone?) and then turns up at your home with all the ingredients, ready to take you and your friends through the recipes in a step-by-step fashion. You will taste everything as you go along, meaning that by the end, you have acquired new skills, as well as being comfortably full.
If you would like to go all out, really impress your guest(s) and take the credit for it too, his Dinner Party Prep package is an excellent choice. Hitchens will arrive at your home the day before the event with all the ingredients for your chosen menu, and will then assist with (or do) all the prep work, as well as teaching you how to plate like a professional. Crucially, he will also leave you with a little bit of live cooking to do on the night, so that it looks like you are one of those enviable cooks who can serve up amazing food effortlessly, without even a break in conversation. A Valentine's Day winner if there ever were one.