In a region filled to saturation point with restaurants endorsed by celebrity chefs and global brand names, sometimes the local eateries that serve authentic food are unfairly overlooked. In an attempt to remedy this, we asked five food experts – a food blogger, a chef, a fresh ingredients enthusiast, a food writer-slash-television presenter and a cafe owner – to name their favourite, lesser-known dining spots. Here's what got their votes:
The food blogger
Arva Ahmed is so passionate about discovering hidden restaurants and authentic hole-in-the-wall spots that she writes a blog dedicated to the subject. "'I Live in a Frying Pan' began as a general food blog," she tells me, as we wander through the Meena Bazaar area of Bur Dubai. "Over time, though, I realised that the restaurants that I was most passionate about are the secret or ethnic ones; the stranger or more different a place is, the more excited I become."
Soon after, we enter Kathmandu Highland, a small restaurant on the second floor (press -1 when you enter the lift) of a slightly ramshackle-looking building opposite the Astoria hotel. This is, Ahmed explains, one of the few Nepalese restaurants that she knows of in the city, having found it via a Nepalese society newsletter.
Ahmed comes here primarily for momos (Nepalese dumplings). "The dough is made from flour and water and they can be stuffed with chicken, mutton, vegetables or buffalo meat. You can choose to have them steamed, deep fried or, my favourite, pan fried [known as kothe], so they're not too heavy, but have a crisp outer edge."
At Kathmandu Highland, a plate of freshly cooked momo served with an addictive dipping sauce (made from, among other ingredients, the Nepalese spice timur) will set you back Dh10 - and I can vouch for this being money well spent. For maximum effect, take Ahmed's advice and "bite off a corner of the dumpling, then dip the cut edge right into the sauce, to allow it to really soak all the way through".
Our next stop is a restaurant called Kulcha King, where, after we make our way past the tiny kitchen, up a narrow staircase and into a small seating area, Ahmed tells me a little more about her passion: "It's almost like a compulsion; I'll be driving around and I'll spot a little cafe or roadside place, which probably looks like nothing to most people, but I can't help thinking that it might serve the best rice or curry in the world, so I want to try it."
At Kulcha King, she recommends that we try the aloo kulcha chole (leavened bread stuffed with soft, spiced potatoes and served with chickpea curry) and the special lacha kulcha which, true to its name, is really something remarkable: layers of slightly crisp, flaky layered bread dusted with zingy chaat masala and stuffed with herbs, paneer and cauliflower.
Eaten alone, both breads are delicious, but tear off a piece and dunk it into a little pot of tangy tamarind chutney, try a mouthful with the chickpea curry or pour over a little dal makhani and the experience is quickly elevated into the realms of the unforgettable. Wash the dish down with a glass of sweet/salted Punjabi lassi and for Dh18, even those with the biggest of appetites are sure to feel not only sated, but pleased that they took the time to seek this spot out.
• Kathmandu Highland is near the Astoria hotel in Meena Bazaar, Bur Dubai. Call 04 353 6398 or 055 174 2232 for directions. Kulcha King is found at Al Souq Al Kabeer also in Meena Bazaar. Call 04 327 8622 or 050 583 8381
Norberto Palacios is the chef de cuisine at Asado, the Argentinian restaurant at The Palace-The Old Town in Dubai. When he has a day off, he can often be found tucking into butter chicken at an Indian restaurant hidden away behind Ibn Battuta Mall called Tandoori (a version of which he claims rivals the famed dish at Ravi in Satwa). "I only discovered it because an Indian friend of mine took me there once and after that, I was hooked. When I lived in Discovery Gardens, I'd go there at least once a week," he says.
The size of the restaurant and the simplistic decor belies the quality of the food, say Palacios. "Everything is cooked and made fresh. You do need to be prepared to wait, but it's worth it. The paratha bread, which you can watch the chefs preparing, is particularly good and the butter chicken is excellent; I order it every time, along with a juice made from mint, lemon and coriander seeds. For less than Dh50, you can eat very, very well there."
• Tandoori is close to The Gardens by Ibn Battuta Mall. Call 04 423 3855
The fresh ingredients enthusiast
When she's in the mood for a taste of Thailand, Becky Balderstone (the founder of Ripe, the farmer's market and organic vegetable box delivery service) heads to Smiling BKK in Jumeirah.
This place, she says, has character. "The decor is very retro and very Thai. The restaurant is tiny and filled with art and individual touches: the place mats are made from magazines, you're given a tambourine to shake when you want service and the menu is very comical, with all the dishes given a funny name."
Balderstone says that for Dh100, two people can enjoy a very tasty and entertaining meal (karaoke optional). "I love the Chinese broccoli with garlic and oyster sauce, which is always cooked to perfection and the chicken peanut curry with steamed white rice, which gets served in a little heart shaped mould ... so cheesy but perfect for the venue!"
She concludes that while brand-name restaurants are all well and good, individual places like this should also be celebrated. "Smiling BKK is definitely not a five-star restaurant, but you will always have excellent Thai food and a really fun night here."
• Smiling BKK is near Al Wasl Road, behind the Emarat Petrol Station and close to the Jumeirah Post Office. Call 04 349 6677
The television presenter/food writer
Born and raised in the US, but with Pakistani origins, Saba Wahid describes Kabab BQ, a Pakistani restaurant in Jumeirah, as "a hidden gem" and says that while she feels the cuisine is under-represented, Kabab BQ offers an authentic, reasonably priced option that never fails to satisfy her cravings for comfort food.
"I found the restaurant by chance; my friend and I were actually on our way to Kabab BQ's neighbour restaurant and decided to give it a go," she explains. "I was thoroughly surprised, especially because I hadn't heard anything about it before - the decor and feel were so welcoming, we couldn't understand why it wasn't busier."
Wahid personally recommends the kebabs and says that she will be returning soon to try the nihari (beef stew). "On the brunch menu (Dh39 per person) the halwa puri has been getting rave reviews, but my personal favourite is the palak paneer with fresh naan. This all has to be topped off with gulab jammun, of course."
• Kabab BQ is on Umm Al Sheif Street in Jumeirah 3. Call 04 394 4656
The cafe owner/businessman
A few years ago, before Jones the Grocer was the roaring success that it is today, the owner Yunib Siddiqui was working hard on the opening of the first store and late at night he would often venture down to Al Safadi in Khalidiya for a restorative shawarma.
"The decor is pretty basic, with simple chairs and tables and a TV showing cable movies, but the Lebanese/Levant food always tastes absolutely amazing," he says. "I think it was my parents who first took me there, perhaps 10 years ago; I recall eating the lamb chops and loving them."
As well as the shawarma (which, it should be noted, is only served in the evenings), he also suggests ordering the charcoal-grilled baby chicken wings. "The chicken wings are simple and look just like they sound. But looks can be deceptive when it comes to food."
Siddiqui believes that independent restaurants such as Al Safadi occupy a vital position in the region's dining scene. "It's hugely important for there to be a high, middle and lower level in terms of pricing, but quality is a different issue altogether. The smaller places that deliver quality - like Ravi in Satwa or Al Safadi - have been around for years and define the fabric of a city. They deliver beyond trends and fashion, beyond the life cycle of big-name chefs," he says.
• Al Safadi in Khalidiya is close to Standard Chartered bank. Call 02 666 0201
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