On a Monday night at about 7pm, empty tables abound outside the restaurants in Jumeirah Fishing Village.
Waiters mill around the store fronts, offering menus to passers-by who barely muster a glance as they stroll past. Most are here for a meal at one place, and at this place, there are only two tables free.
Even on an early weekday evening, 3 Fils in Dubai is humming. Surely a bone of contention for the restaurants surrounding it, it's the only thing giving the quiet, yet picturesque, locale any life on the night we visit.
“We don’t take bookings – even the VIPs have to wait in line,” our friendly waiter tells us as we take a seat at a high bench overlooking the small marina, with the Burj Khalifa sparkling in the distance. Even the sheikhs call ahead, and if there are no seats they get takeaway.
Since opening to little fanfare late last year, 3 Fils has steadily grown a loyal fan base.
Singaporean-born chef Akmal Anuar started the venture as a labour of love, after helping at his parents hawker stall and going on to helm Singapore's much-lauded Iggy's for a decade. He later packed it in to come to Dubai and open Zengo at Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, before deciding the time was right to branch out on his own. His wife Inez Wyatt takes care of the marketing – largely tending to their loyal Instagram following – and often staffs the floor.
The name is a play on the three owners (two Emiratis and Anuar) each giving their "two cent's worth". The restaurant serves high-end food at casual eatery prices. "The fil is a small part, but it's still important – like our restaurant. It's small but cute, and so is our menu," our waiter says.
The menu is small and unfussy: a handful of simple Asian-inspired tapas dishes, perfect for ordering in bulk and spreading across your table. But however many dishes you order, your table never gets overloaded – the restaurant's ethos is to bring food out whenever it's ready. It means a steady trickle of food rather than one solid dumping, so nothing gets cold.
Highlights come in the form of the king crab salad (Dh47), punctuated with lashings of Thai chilli dressing and a generous helping of coriander. As a former Tokyo resident, my heart is set a flutter when I spot the otoro nigiri on the menu, and even more so when I taste it. At Dh75, it's an expensive plate of two mouthfuls of sushi, but considering the bluefin tuna is imported from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji Fish Market (chilled, not frozen), you're paying for world-class quality.
"The best tuna in town, you'll find it here," our waiter tells us. "We're very proud of that. We don't serve soy sauce – it's so balanced you don't need to add anything to it."
When the restaurant first opened, it was importing five to seven kilograms of tuna each week. They're now buying in 70 to 90kgs.
I didn't anticipate being fond of the sakura ebi (Dh68), because I'm not a pasta person, but the capellini is perfectly cooked and doused in two of my favourite things: oil (of the lobster variety) and garlic. My advice: carry several packs of strong mints or chewing gum.
The Fremantle octopus (Dh58), imported all the way from the Australian city Perth, is crispy and served on a quenelle of potato and leek puree. And we yell a unanimous "yes" when it's suggested we try the lamb ribs (Dh54), pictured above.
As a Kiwi, it can be difficult to maintain my almost unattainably high standards on lamb quality when outside New Zealand, but we're surprisingly impressed. The morsels of tender meat fall from the bone at the lightest prod – all down to the cooking method, we're told, which involves a 21-spice marinade, chargrilling and then baking.
Dessert is a course with added entertainment, as karak ice cream (Dh48) is assembled and thrown emphatically into the middle of the table. Our horrified faces are set at ease as we notice the bowl underneath, where the ice cream merges with cardamom and black tea – it tastes like a very cold, creamy cup of karak chai.
Throughout the night, we see happy customers continuously approaching the owners like old friends – as perhaps they are.
3 Fils is at Shop 02, Jumeirah Fishing Harbour 1, near Omnia Gourmet. During Ramadan, it is open 7pm to midnight and closed on Sundays. For more information, visit www.3fils.com