Gordon Ramsay, who was the first British celebrity chef to have a Dubai culinary outpost, recently announced he would be closing his restaurant, Verre. It opened in 2003 in the Hilton Creek hotel along Dubai Creek, back when this area was the epicenter of life in Dubai. Presumably, business hasn’t been good since the center of Dubai has shifted west to Old Town and Marina. But more than that, I happen to think that the clients dropped off after paying a significant sum for mediocre food. Mushy peas as haute cuisine? Bleh. It didn’t work.
Dubai boasts it has an impressive culinary pedigree. And, certainly, the names are there. Gary Rhodes and Pierre Gagnaire both have signature restaurants here. Bice, Nobu and The Ivy have replicated in the U.A.E. from their American or British home bases. The tastes just don’t meet the expectations of the hype or the bill. Considering J.B.’s culinary prowess, I don’t go out to eat very much anymore.
Happily, I’ve embarked on a different culinary journey in recent months, along with the capable sherpas of my friends V.P. and A.G. Both Texas Exes, they were raised here in Dubai and remember this town before … the boom, the craziness, the kitsch. Instead of Gordon Ramsay, Dubai diners should get to know Majeed, the Irani proprietor at Special Ostadi in Bur Dubai.
Ostadi is located just outside of Meena Bazaar, one of the main Indian shopping districts in old Dubai. It opened in 1978, making it eligible for historic status if Dubai did that sort of thing. The tiny dining area has posters of U.A.E. sheikhs, pictures of Dubai, then and now. This is no hyper-styled interior design: one of the wall features is a display of old cel phones, including, as V.P. pointed out, the first ever cel to be available in Dubai.
Three generations can be seen working the tables and the restaurant does one thing: kebabs. Your choice is mutton, chicken or both? We left our fate in his hands and were rewarded with a platter of yogurt-marinated chicken and mutton, along with a pair of those cooked in lemon juice. A saffron chicken kebob accompanied a minced lamb kebab. We also had garnishes of tomato and cucumber slices and chopped green onion and Irani raita to accompany the meat.
I thought the kebabs were great, simple grilled meat. What really made the meal memorable was the hospitality of Majeed. Calling himself “Mohan Singh,” with the unlikely heritage of being a Irani Sindhi, he spoke Hindi to us. He joked around in Arabic and Farsi to patrons at other tables. As soon as he saw me taking photos of the dishes, Majeed selected me as his favored victim. Perhaps it was the most micro manifestation of our two countries’ animosity toward one another.
He stole my iPhone off the table, only later to “return” it wrapped in foil as a KitKat for dessert along with the dates and mint tea. He snuck a lemon into my purse and planned to accuse me of stealing it when we left. (I foiled this part of the plan when I reached into my purse for my lip balm and found a lemon laying there.) Most outrageously, my friend V.P. was conspiring with him, mistakenly thinking I didn’t understand Hindi. Hey, I might be A.B.C.D. but I’m not that confused.
We laughed through dinner, watching Majeed practice his trickery on us and the other patrons. I personally think Majeed and I did something positive for U.S./Iran relations. In any case, you never get this kind of local, neighborhood-y feel in Dubai’s pricey, celebrity restaurants. So, farewell, Mr. Ramsay, as long as we get to keep Majeed.
We also visited (not the same night) Al Tawasol, a nondescript Yemeni place in Deira. We sat in traditional Yemeni tents set up in the family section in the back. The front part of the restaurant is a communal majlis-style seating area for men only. The menu here, too, was very simple. We ordered two half-chickens, one grilled and one baked, over a mound of rice. We ate off of one plate with our hands, Yemeni-style. My favorite discovery about Yemeni food was zhug, a type of salsa. With tastes of chiles, coriander and black pepper, it gave our chicken and rice a nice kick and I’m thinking would be a good addition to tacos as well. I found this recipe online and plan to make a batch soon.
3 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
4-6 hot chilies
1 ½ cups coriander sprigs, washed and drained
6 cloves of garlic
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cold water
1. Place cardamom pods, peppercorns and caraway seeds in the jar of a blender and blend to a coarse powder.
2. Cut stems from chilies, leaving rest of chili intact. Add to blender jar with remaining ingredients and blend to a coarse puree
3. Turn into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, then place in a jar, seal and tore in the refrigerator.
Use as a bread dip or as called for in recipes.