More than 40 restaurants in Abu Dhabi were recognised by Michelin earlier this month when the organisation’s inaugural guide to the capital was unveiled. Three restaurants within that group received a prestigious star, while four more were ranked in the Bib Gourmand category.
Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the Michelin Guide, told The National at the guide’s launch event that “Abu Dhabi is a rapidly evolving landscape and this is just the kick-off party, a way to ignite the dynamic and raise the bar".
If you are a food lover the chances are you have already looked over the list, just as you may have done when the Dubai guide was published a few months earlier. These lists are always great talking points, driving conversations about who made the grade, who was overlooked and why.
For the outlets who did get on to the list it shines a light on their work and independently validates them, for the city itself, it underscores Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a high-calibre destination and for visitors and residents, it creates an instant culinary trail to follow.
There were, of course, plenty of restaurants that were expected to be recognised and indeed were, including Hakkasan at Emirates Palace hotel, which was awarded a star nearly 20 years after one of its sister locations in London achieved the same accolade for the first time. But that promise by Michelin to “ignite the dynamic” also offered some unexpected surprises within the online guide’s general listings.
Sitting alongside the fine-dining options such as Butcher and Still and Fouquet’s were a handful of more affordable options, such as Meylas in Al Muneera, which has undertaken a wonderful journey from food truck to international recognition in just a few years, and Al Mrzab, which can be found in the pocket of the city occupied by Al Mushrif, Al Jazira football ground and the National Theatre. Like dozens of other restaurants in that area of the city, it has helped transform the neighbourhood in the years since it opened.
Al Mrzab restaurant sits in a row of low-rise buildings on Old Airport Road between Mohammed bin Khalifa Street and Shakhbout bin Sultan Street, an area that once used to be colloquially known as the car souq.
A decade ago, the city’s second-hand car dealers would scurry out of their small ground-floor offices whenever any passer-by showed even a small level of interest in their inventory of saloons and SUVs that were parked there. But when the car dealers were moved out of the city to the purpose-built Motor World facility near the international airport not long afterwards, it felt like the neighbourhood it left behind had reached a crossroads.
Much of the commercial imperative that had kept it alive for decades had disappeared almost overnight and for a while all that was left was the silence of empty buildings and vacant car parking spaces.
Progressively, however, life returned to those buildings as the former offices and small showrooms were reimagined as a string of bustling and affordable restaurants. Al Mrzab is one of the outlets that arrived about eight years ago and now the neighbourhood has a Michelin Guide-listed restaurant within its midst.
As a long-term resident of that part of Abu Dhabi, Al Mrzab’s listing represents a big vote of confidence in the area. In time, no doubt, news of the listing will encourage more people to sample what’s on offer in the area, not just there, but up and down the strip of restaurants and so-called "cheap eats".
Stepping into Al Mrzab this week, it was clear the restaurant retains the homespun charm that brought it recognition in the first place. On the walls hung pictures of old Abu Dhabi and at its tables and private cabins, regular patrons tuck into traditional Emirati and Kuwaiti dishes. The whole feel of the place is comfortable and welcoming. The guide praised the restaurant for its use of “traditional dishes [and] good ingredients”. That’s spot on, its majbous, a meat or fish and rice dish, was delicious.
At the end of the meal, the bill was also a pleasant surprise and stands as a sharp counter narrative to those who would caricature this part of the world as all high-life and stratospheric costs. If you saw that reported six-figure restaurant tab doing the rounds on social media last weekend, this was two figures for a feast.
There are, of course, some potential pitfalls for listed restaurants, too.
Six years ago, a hawker stall in Singapore made international headlines by being awarded a star in the city’s inaugural guide. It became known as the home of “the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal” – Hawker Chan’s chicken rice signature dish was priced at S$3 (roughly Dh8) – and elevated its owner to near rock star status.
Last year, Hawker Chan lost its star – Michelin does not confer immutable status on its star-recipients – prompting a chunk of commentary about what that meant.
I’d also hope that Michelin is able to help the affordable restaurants it lists with marketing costs because as the above example illustrates, being listed or star-rated brings its own set of expectations and expense.
But for Abu Dhabi, for now at least, this is a time for celebratory notes rather than cautionary tales. The guide is a welcome addition to our world.