There's grocery shopping, and there's gourmet grocery shopping. If your weekly basket contains such exclusive items as Wagyu tenderloin steaks, Himalayan crystal salt and organic Essene sprouted wheat bread, then a trip to your local Carrefour probably won't quite hit the spot. As our tastes become increasingly specialised, so do our food shopping habits, and so the demand for luxury, organic, freshly baked and artisanal food items has grown.
Dubai has already started meeting those demands in a marketplace that has never had so many options when it comes to delicatessens, gourmet food shops and speciality bakeries. But although the Abu Dhabi scene isn't quite so developed, everything will change in the next few weeks when Jones the Grocer comes to town. The Australian artisan grocery, bakery and cafe is currently putting the finishing touches on its first store in the capital. Its co-owner and driving force, Yunib Siddiqui, hopes it will make an impact on the city's growing contingent of epicureans. He has been frantically busy setting up the venture and the excitement in his voice suggests he's anxious to launch the brand in the Middle East.
"There's nothing like it currently in the UAE," he says with conviction. "Eighty or 90 per cent of what we sell is handmade and free of artificial preservatives. We source products made by small groups that generally manufacture products in small batches - so generally the food isn't factory produced. It wouldn't be food that is made in a supermarket-type run. It's not food that would be stocked in supermarkets generally because supermarkets tend to buy generic products."
Jones the Grocer has been operating as a high-end food emporium in Australia since 1996. After financial problems and a change of ownership, the brand grew, and new stores opened in New Zealand and most recently in Singapore with great success. The philosophy and brand values remain consistent: to offer the best internationally sourced gourmet food for everyday living - and that goes for the Abu Dhabi store also.
"We are not changing the brand at all," promises Siddiqui. "We are keeping the brand the way it is and we don't want to dilute it. In Singapore, a lot of people said we'd have to cater to the tastes of people there. People were telling us that Singaporeans didn't like cheese, that cheese wouldn't sell there. But our cheese room in Singapore is the most successful across our 11 stores. So, we don't want to change the brand at all. People will see exactly what they'll see in all our other stores."
So what can people expect to see in Abu Dhabi's newest delicatessen and bakery? "We stock quite a lot of seasonal products," he explains. "So, for example, we'll be selling truffle oil when it's in season. We do olive oils that have been produced in small runs for us; we do handmade jams that have very little sugar in them, that have been naturally sweetened. We do all kinds of products: chutneys, biscuits, baby food. The goal is not necessarily to be organic but to be natural and handmade.
"Apart from the grocery we're also a cafe and a bistro, so we use products in our cafe that we actually sell in the grocery. If something is in season, we'll use it. We'll cook pasta from our grocery. The arrabiata sauce would be from our own batch that we have produced for ourselves in Australia, and the truffle oil would be something that we're selling in our store as part of seasonal produce. We do cheese platters, we do antipasti. We do our own Wagyu burger - we mince our own beef in-store, make our own patties and make our own buns, and we serve it with our own Jones sauces. We also do a range of innovative tempura. It's a varied, international and innovative menu."
Then there's the cheese room - which Siddiqui believes to be the largest in the Middle East at 16 square metres - offering up to 180 different types of cheese made by independent dairies in limited product runs. And those who appreciate freshly baked bread are in for a treat. "We've also got an artisan bakery," he says. "We source all-natural flour, it's not a pre-mix. If you buy bread at Waitrose or Spinneys, it's a pre-mix. They just knead it, prove it and put it in the ovens. If we're making raisin bread, we actually put the raisins in ourselves. We mix the flour ourselves and do everything ourselves. So there's a big difference in taste and quality. We've also got a patisserie, and our pastry chef is currently in Australia training in one of our stores."
With its cafe, cheese room, bakery and patisserie, Jones the Grocer will certainly be a unique addition to the capital's gourmet food scene. But had it not been for high operational costs, it might have been Dubai that benefited from its unique services, as Siddiqui explains. "When we looked at the business models, we found that they just didn't work with the rentals that the landlords wanted in Dubai. The business models didn't make sense in Dubai. It was just too expensive.
"We came to Abu Dhabi and realised that there was nothing remotely similar. It was totally virgin. So we just thought to ourselves, hang on a second, why can't we do this in Abu Dhabi? There are expats here, albeit in a smaller community. There's a growing population. So we looked and found a great site. And we got a good deal on the rent, so surprisingly it ticked all the boxes."
? Al Mamoura Building, Muroor Road, Abu Dhabi, www.jonesthegrocer.ae.
Although the new Dubai Mall branch of Wafi Gourmet might enjoy the greater passing trade, the original store in Wafi City is equally well equipped to serve Lebanese gourmets looking for a taste of home. At both locations they'll find misty green olive oil, cracked bulghur wheat and sumac next to barrels of olives stuffed with everything from pickled lemons to cheese and chilli. A fresh fruit and vegetable stall offers loz akhdar or green almonds, a typical Lebanese snack with a slightly bitter taste that's offset by a sprinkling of salt. A sweet counter boasts a baffling variety of baklava and knafa with cheese or ashta; and the deli counter plays host to stews with okra and aubergine, not to mention great Arabic dips like hummus and muhammara.
? Wafi City, Oud Metha, Dubai, 04 324 4433; Dubai Mall, Downtown Burj Dubai, 04 330 8297.
One of the latest and most welcome additions to the capital's slowly evolving gourmet deli collection, this Souk Qaryat Al Beri store, cafe and bakery is full of surprises. Not only is it good for everyday grocery items like milk, water and eggs, but its shelves are well stocked with lesser-known specialist products such as Miller's Damsels organic wafers, Kitchen Garden plum and date chutney and Bay Tree pasta sauces. There's also a cheese counter, fresh fruit and vegetables and a bakery serving all kinds of rolls, loaves, pastries and cakes, making it a one-stop shop for all your grocery needs. And when your grocery shopping is done, you can relax with a bite in the bright and cheerful cafe at the rear of the store.
? Souk Qaryat Al Beri, Shangri-La Hotel complex, Abu Dhabi, 02 558 1468.
Is it a cafe, a deli, a bakery, a takeaway or a wholesale gourmet food supplier? Counter Culture, it appears, is all of those things. Grab a table and order a salad or sandwich, or pass by and grab a baked potato or steak and mushroom pie to go. The bakery specialises in European breads, from gluten-free loaves to squid ink rolls, and there are deli counters to browse for ready-made sauces like Cottage Delights' hickory smoked barbecue sauce. But the true beauty of Counter Culture lies in its partnership with the Dutch seafood company Schmidt, which will turn bulk orders of smoked mackerel, jumbo mussels, herring and whole smoked eel around in less than a week.
? The Harbour Hotel & Residence, Dubai Marina, 04 319 4000.
There's nothing like the sights, sounds and smells of a Lebanese bakery early in the morning: the gently toasted aroma of baking flatbread, the clamour for hot, fresh cheesy manakish and the arresting array of baklava and Arabic sweets that sweep across the counters. All of it can be experienced at Lebanon Flower, where you'll find pastries (including spinach fatayers) and breads in all shapes and sizes. The Beirut-style mini pizzas are particularly good.
? Hazza Bin Zayed Street, Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi, 02 666 9928.
Organic food is regrettably one of the first little luxuries that's sacrificed in times of economic gloom. But if you just can't bear to part with your morning bowl of amaranth flakes, this is the place to find them. For the unswervingly environmentally sound and health conscious, this expansive (and, it has to be said, slightly expensive) Dubai Mall store has everything, from cereal bars by Go Natural and Taste of Nature, to home growing systems for bean sprouts from Geo. As well as a meat counter, cheese room, fish monger, fruit & veg cold store and bakery (watch out for the special Essene sprouted grain bread, when it's available), there's a large cafe replete with one of the most wholesome salad bars in the city.
? Dubai Mall, 04 434 0577; plus various locations around Dubai.
One of the best food finds of the year. Gourmet Station might be hidden away on the top floor of the easy-to-miss Oasis Mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, but its high-quality wares are worthy of a much more prominent stage. A bakery offers colourful onion focaccia breads, Kraft rolls and sesame snail loaves, while an extensive tea stall reveals exotic blends like Jasmine Dragon Pearls and Gold Monkey tea. The shelves are almost buckling beneath gourmet salts (Speciality Tibetan Classic Halite Crystal Salt costs Dh138 per 250g), and fancy sugars (Canasuc's crystal sugar sticks are Dh72.50 for 10), not to mention artisanal pastas, sauces, cereals, olive oils, gift hampers, caviar, foie gras... You name it, Gourmet Station has it.
? Oasis Mall, Sheikh Zayed Road, 04 515 4040.
This gourmet deli at Harvey Nichols used to compete with a neighbouring branch of Oil and Vinegar, but the balsamic and olive oil specialist fell prey to the economic crisis, leaving the Food Market as the sole gourmet food outlet in Mall of the Emirates. You can still get excellent quality olive oil here, as well as the famous Consorzio balsamic vinegar of Modena (the 12-year-old variety is a snip at Dh750 per 100ml). There's also tea by Dammann, oat cakes by Duchy Originals, fruit purées by The Fine Cheese Co and Faces branded cutlery by the master chef of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria.
? Harvey Nichols, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, 04 409 8888.
Marks & Spencer food halls might be famous for their sandwiches, but here in the Middle East the emphasis is more on the jars, tins, packets and boxes of food that line its well-stocked shelves. There's peanut butter, ready-made masala curry sauces, English and French mustards, caramelised red onion chutney, fruit juice, pumpkin seeds with chilli, "extremely chocolatey" chocolate rounds biscuits and fair trade double chocolate chip cookies to take your mind off the sandwiches. And if you fancy your chances of getting them back home in the summer heat before they melt, there's a whole range of frozen vegetables and ready-meals on offer.
? Fetouh Al Khair Centre, Abu Dhabi, 02 621 3646; Festival City, Dubai, 04 206 6466. Also at Dubai Mall, Wafi City and Deira in Dubai; Sharjah and Al Ain.
It may seem odd going grocery shopping in the doorway of a restaurant. But Prego's delicatessen is one of the few places in Abu Dhabi where you'll find authentic Italian gourmet products. The deli might occupy a tiny space, but here you can pick up De Cecco olive oils and pasta products, made with tradition in mind since 1886. There's salts and spices by Bembo, Ursini pestos, Venchi chocolates and Tentazioni balsamic vinegar. Need corn flour flavoured with truffle for that extra special Italian polenta dish? Then this is the place to get it. In fact the only thing here that isn't Italian is the posh tea by Tea Forte - but it is very good.
? Beach Rotana Hotel, Abu Dhabi, 02 644 3000.
Just down the road from Lebanon Flower is Al Saada Bakery. It's set up in similar fashion to its close neighbour, with long sweeping counters and shelves stacked with packets of flatbread of varying sizes. Among the usual manakish, cakes and doughnuts, there's crispy, zeppelin-shaped hollow breads (or ka'ak), which can be broken into pieces and used to scoop up hummus or moutabel. But the real treat to look out for each morning is the delivery of Lebanese "termos" or lupin beans, which are lightly salted and make excellent snacks with cold drinks on a hot day. ? Hazza Bin Zayed Street, Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi, 02 641 2488. email@example.com