The open-air Media City Amphitheatre is bustling by the time I make my way to Taste of Dubai on Friday evening. Things are in full swing on day one of the three-day food festival, with South African “Giggling Gourmet” Jenny Morris presiding over a cooking challenge on one end as chefs Akira Back, Akmal Anuar and Massimo Bottura weave their way through the crowd.
All three chefs have stalls at Taste of Dubai this year for their restaurants, Akira Back, 11 Woodfire and Torno Subito. The festival also offers bite-size dishes from a dozen other fine-dining restaurants, available at a fraction of the price compared to the a la carte menus.
The dishes may be small, but they are packed with flavour. I pick up some sriracha mayo-loaded Dirty Fries at Goldchix, succulent lamb dumplings from Lowe and return twice to the Reif Kushiyaki tent for a sinfully creamy dish of truffle udon.
Once you've had your fill of food, indulge in some culinary retail therapy at Truffle House and Ahmad Tea London, or shake a leg at one of the enclosed tents scattered about. The festival has returned without a main stage, instead, music emanates from various parts of the park.
A DJ booth is at the other end of the amphitheatre, with beanbags and picnic-style benches strewn about; the VIP arena has a live singer, while the Birra Moretti-sponsored tent is free to enter and has an excellent three-member band belting out foot-thumping hits.
Freebies abound at Taste of Dubai this year, from artisanal cakesicles at Varak to complimentary American Garden popcorn. An army of roaming servers — some dressed as giant strawberries — hand out juices, cupcakes and cheese samplers.
These are particularly popular with children and the festival is full of families enjoying the winter sun — under-12s can enter for free. A face-painting booth, seed-planting in the Farmer's Market tent and activities organised at the woo-hoo play area will keep little ones busy, too.
Those who want to flex their culinary muscles can participate in the Kibsons Cooking Challenge, while those who want to perfect their cooking skills can interact with chefs at the Waterfront Market BBQ School or Phillips Cooking School.
Make a day of it
If the hundreds of revellers who made it to day one are anything to go by, Taste of Dubai is bound to get crowded on Saturday and Sunday. Seats fill up quickly, but you can carry your own mats and foldable chairs or simply plonk down on the grass.
Parking is limited, too, so organisers suggest getting there early if you're driving, as well as booking tickets online. While a regular ticket costs Dh75, a Taster ticket gets you two dishes and two drinks for Dh165 (or Dh300 for a couple), and comes highly recommended.
Our top tip, though, would be to skip breakfast and grab both lunch and dinner at the licensed festival, with a few mid-day meals thrown in for good measure.
Running until Sunday; noon-midnight on Saturday; noon-10pm on Sunday; from Dh75; Dubai Media City Amphitheatre; tasteofdubaifestival.com
Scroll through the gallery below to see the spots on Mena's 50 Best Restaurants 2023 list