Dubai must have more hotel dining options than any comparable city. Indeed, the most hotels. Gleaming towers erupt from the sand, huddled into clusters of hazy, dystopian lodgings. Within minutes of leaving the airport, these hotels begin to emerge, growing taller and more dominant. But you can never truly see them from below because when that sun bounces off the facades of a trillion polished windows, it’ll sizzle ya eyeballs into a bloody gunk.
The sanctimonious marketing of such culinary capital must be tasted to be believed, but before you taste it, you must be able to afford it, and here lies the problem
Outside, in the sodden heat, I pass hundreds of billboards, each proclaiming new hotel and restaurant openings, all fronted by a TV chef who long since meant anything. I really can’t get on board with the whole franchised, multi-city restaurant concept, where so-called global gustatory gurus graffiti the city’s culinary scene and pop up in random places such as Riyadh and Bryansk. So many of these chefs left the kitchen long ago and now lend their names to restaurants in Mauritius, the Maldives, Dubai and a dozen other holiday destinations. I’m sure the structure is correct, and the right people installed to lead and galvanise such places, but I have experienced better and more fulfilling meals when the chef behind the restaurant, the idea, the approach, the menu is on-hand.
I’ve written just once about dining in Dubai. It doesn’t interest me as a destination, despite Love Islanders on Instagram declaring the Prosecco & Sushi “The Best!!!” Erm, yeah. Okay. But no. Nothing grows, the earth too cooked and blistered, and you can’t dine outside unless you like sand in your salad. I know they’re pushing for more, attempting to attract the adventure tourist and fine dining nomads via 50 Best talks and launching the Michelin Guide*, but that’s what under-the-table envelopes and a reported $30 million can get you. So what about the food? The sanctimonious marketing of such culinary capital must be tasted to be believed, but before you taste it, you must be able to afford it, and here lies the problem.
High-rise dining and bottomless brunches come at a premium. Sandy salads, too. Sure, there are tacos, oysters, sushi and limitless burrata, but the Emiratis aren’t consuming this, just the free-spending tourists. For the local Emiratis and working poor of the UAE, food is shawarma and dates, the cheapest, quickest and most efficient converters of protein. But then, Gulf Arabs have become the minority in this new country wished out of the desert. So, where’s the innovation?
Mostly I’ve enjoyed the lackadaisical Covid regulations of Dubai, seeing it as the promise of a tan but the demise of style and concept. Then I met Himanshu Saini from Trèsind Studio, who told me that things do, in fact, grow and pointed me to the Greenheart organic farm in Dubai and another in Sharjah. A year and a half later, I was back, travelling along another new sandy stretch with the Ferraris and Lamborghinis – past the billboards of smiling Ramsey, Blumenthal, Nobu and Pierre White et al. – to the peak of The Palm and Atlantis to meet chef Gregoire Berger.
Suppose the restaurant scene in Dubai is evolving to where it can challenge on the global fine dining scene. In that case, Himanshu and Gregoire are the two transplanted chefs – from India and France, respectively – rising to the fore. These are the two names I am repeatedly hearing, Gregoire having previously fronted Atlantis’s Ossiano restaurant before taking a sabbatical. Now he’s back and the restaurant reborn, in a subterranean fishbowl of Plato’s hubris. A floor-to-ceiling aquarium is revealed down the staircase, filled with exotic creatures of the deep. An ocean parade winds its way through the entire ground floor of the Atlantis, with a portion privatised for the restaurant. It’s a carnival of colour. Bored clown fish dart about, and lemon sharks glissade from imitation rocks. I’m told that it holds 65,000 aquatic animals, keeping with the promotion of “Metanoia” dining, with menus created exclusively using ingredients from the waters and coastal regions of the world or within 50km of a coastline.
I developed a craving for something exotic, maybe a clubbed seal, a stuffed swan or a fishy mermaid’s tale
This global odyssey seeks to tell the story of Gregoire, the nomadic chef. Brittany-born, he has found a home in the UAE after travels took him across Europe with time spent in Morocco – where he met his wife. Nostalgic recipes from Brittany and northern France spearhead the menu, with specific ingredients sourced from Dubai farms (which do exist, remember) and North African spicing elevating plates to something greater. Take, for instance, his use of Kari Gosse, most famously imported by the East India Company for greedy Brits and the fat French to baste their lobsters. Here it’s paired with a sweet Brittany brown crab and the “essence” of Bouillabaisse (in the form of a spray to liven the senses) and a dry and endearing Gewürztraminer from Alsace. And there’s a series of excellent “Snacks of the Sea” with dabs of spice across a trout cracker, a light cauliflower mousse with caviar and gold leaf and something titled just “Seawater”.
More plates arrive, breaking me from the hypnotic trance of the fishes. Watching them, I developed a craving for something exotic, maybe a clubbed seal, a stuffed swan or a fishy mermaid’s tale. We’re in Dubai, after all. There is a lot of talk about sustainable, renewable, organic and who, aside from the polar bears and Inuit, are consuming seals? It would be great for the Gram! Things, though, take a more classic lean with burnt leeks in a clam cream. A crunchy potato crisp was placed on top, dusted in a truffle and cooling cep snow mix – the micro-herbs from Greenheart farm – and paired with a toasting marshmallow which the diner is encouraged to move over the flame themselves. This is followed by langoustine with potato, sea pesto and wakame oil, produced from a species of kelp native to the cold coastal waters of the Pacific. Then bread. This whole mid-meal carbo course seems to be the in-thing right now, almost always revealing a home-baked sourdough with funky butter. Here, with a lively salted seaweed butter.
Then I’m up from my table and led away to the kitchen where Gregoire is waiting at a small set table. On standby is a glass of champagne and a large ice whelk with a geranium, mint, lemon & green chilli sorbet in a white chocolate casing, mimicking a pearl – Vivaldi plays in the background to evoke memories of his father, who played the flute traversière. The sorbet melts quickly on my tongue into rivers of fresh-tart-tanginess, the stealth of the chilli creeping up. Also on the table is a sepia photograph of his grandmother’s Locmariaquer cottage by the sea. It’s a deeply personal course for Gregoire and an opportunity for the diner to break away from the dining room floor for a few moments with the man behind the menu.
Seated back at my table, mains continue with Rade de Brest Scallop (Saint-Jacques) from Brest in Brittany and French morels with artichoke, paired with a Dassai 23 sake from Yamaguchi – prized for its high rice polishing ratio (23%); and then légine, or toothfish, with seaweed and garlic. The légine is admired for its supple flesh and when compared with salmon, which reaches around €11 per kilo, the légine can fetch €30 per kilo. It’s a moist and fatty fish with hints of sweetness, offset by the seaweed and bawdy earthiness of crushed garlic.
Then comes a divisive course, but just the sort of exotic marine innovation I was hoping for – slivers of jellyfish, ebi shrimp and oyster seaweed. There’s an olive dessert, kinda. Black and green spherified olives crack in the mouth and wash my gums with a cooling liquid, and then something that’s described as “Sea Lettuce” in which a matcha ganache, saffron sponge and sugary meringue are dusted in a black tea crumble with thyme and rosemary, a light, springy lemongrass foam with espelette pepper (cultivated in the French commune of Espelette) is then spooned on top.
For the brave seafarer, the 9-course menu comes in at AED 1,095, that’s around £244, without wine – which, from studying the list, could quickly spiral. Some might baulk at the cost but consider the surroundings – you’re simultaneously dining in the desert and the ocean. That, and the quality and sourcing of the ingredients, from a chef that’s actually in the kitchen, guiding guests through a menu that is totally, utterly and marvellously unique to him, unique as a setting and incomparable to anything else happening in Dubai right now. C
Ossiano, Atlantis Dubai, Crescent Road, The Palm, Dubai, UAE
Atlantis.com; +971 4 426 2626
*At the time of writing the Dubai Michelin awards had not been announced. On July 21st, 2022, Ossiano received a Michelin star