Salem Al Mubarak Street in Salmiya, downtown Kuwait, bustles with pedestrians and cars. Multi-brand shopping malls and popular fast-food joints, such as Starbucks, McDonald's and Burger King, line the pavements on both sides. But my eyes are peeled for a hole-in-the-wall Thai eatery called Ubon.
A word-of-mouth recommendation, the six-table restaurant is small, but elegant, and promises a scrumptious meal every time. In that first visit, I tasted the best massaman Thai curry I've eaten in a long time. A thick sauce rich in flavour tantalises the palate and has kept me, unabashedly, coming back for more.
The story is no different in many other restaurants in other parts of the country, a bona fide haven of culinary offerings. Hard at work to earn the title of a world food capital by 2030, Kuwait is directing all its efforts, innovation and revenue streams towards the food and beverage industry. Serving a population of 4.5 million, which includes 3.2m expatriates, Kuwait pulls no punches in the diversity and quality of its food options, and it's the quaint and cosy eateries that seem to be luring in the most customers.
A stone's throw from my apartment building in Kuwait City stands Mais Al Ghanim – another minuscule but tastefully decorated Arabic restaurant that's essentially for takeaway and a frequent favourite in my home. Second only to Zahrat Lebanon in the UAE in this foodie's opinion, Mais's muhammara dip is a flavourful combination of pomegranate molasses, chickpeas, walnuts, red bell peppers, olive oil and tahini that hits the spot instantly. Scooping up generous portions of this with Mais Al Ghanim's melt-in-the-mouth spicy chicken kebab is enough to turn a bad day on its head.
If it's fine dining you're after, Assaha restaurant in the Bneid Al Qar district offers this without compromising on the taste and experience that small places tend to do so well. The charming old-school interior is all arched entrances, stony exteriors and pseudo fireplaces with bench seating resulting in a cavernous vibe.
Assaha, originally a product of Beirut, is a complete package of quality and ambience. It was the first Arabic restaurant that my husband and I visited after moving to Kuwait, and it has taken a comfortable position in our list of top eateries in town.
Another pleasant surprise is just how well catered clean-eating proponents are. Ovo is a vegetarian's delight and a unanimous neighbourhood favourite. Nestled comfortably in a corridor-shaped space at the back of a European-styled hub of quaint and upscale eateries, Ovo has a rustic, Mediterranean feel. Large and cosy blankets sit on the backs of lounge chairs, winning you over with their warmth. The friendly staff will remember you by name and go the extra mile to ensure your baby is well tucked in and kept far away from smoking patrons.
Some menu favourites are the carrot and kale salads, fusion coconut curry, organic black bean wrap, skinny avocado pizza and passion fruit cheesecake, all to be washed down with a tall glass of mango mint lemonade. The restaurant offers some "flexitarian" options to keep the carnivores content, including a salmon poke bowl and chicken tacos with a twist.
The affable owner of Ovo also runs a fusion Lebanese restaurant called Ayyame located in Shaheed Park – the largest urban park in Kuwait City. With an assortment of offerings from across the region – from Mediterranean salads and Palestinian mujadara to Iranian dips and Egyptian koshary tea brewed with loose tea leaves – Ayyame's food and ambience are both top notch.
For Asian food lovers, White Robata at the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre is the place to be. Known for its meat dishes and tapas offerings, the succulent Wagyu burger, a range of gyozas, mango khimchi and Tokyo salad are unprecedented works of fusion food.
Another favourite is Lebanese fine-dining restaurant Babel. With franchises across the Middle East and a prominent presence in the UAE as well, Babel in Kuwait is already a winner by virtue of its location. Perched right in front of the expansive Arabian Gulf and annexed to the Marina World aquarium, Babel boasts a unique architectural structure with high stone pillars and archways that lend it a medieval look, with breathtaking views of the ocean. The food is the icing on the cake with a choice selection of Lebanese cuisine – every bite making it worth shelling out those extra bucks.
During our initial days here in Kuwait, I was pregnant. The cravings coupled with my love for spicy Indian street food led me to 12 Chutneys.