Dreaming of Dubai

The new go-to destination for savvy travelers.


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Undulating dunes, luxurious, mosaic-tiled lagoons, gourmet repasts in the midst of swimming sharks... just when you think Dubai couldn't get any more spectacular, this wildly inventive, can-do city on the Persian Gulf unveils another reason to make it a coveted destination in the Middle East.

One of seven of the United Arab Emirates and the commercial heart of the UAE, Dubai is scene to a frenetic expansion that is almost unprecedented. Untold fortunes are being spent on turning Dubai city into a real estate and tourism powerhouse. Its oil supply ran out in 1966; today, the vision and imagination of its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is turning swaths of desert into a magic kingdom. Visitors liken it to Disneyland and Las Vegas, but it's more like an Arabian Nights fantasy that really works for its million-plus residents. Moreover, the constantly evolving boom town is an exotic, sophisticated and safe destination for world travelers.

If visitors know Dubai at all, it is for its audacious real estate projects. Palm Jumeirah, familiarly called Palm One, is an off-shore community of man-made islands in the shape of a palm tree that was sold out within three days of its announcement; its property owners are soon to take occupancy. Dubai has already launched Palm Two, the similar but larger Palm Jebel Ali, where water homes on stilts spell out a poem by His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed. Palm Deira, or Palm Three, to be the size of Paris, has been indefinitely postponed, but construction proceeds on The World. For this, 300 islands dredged from the sea 2.5 miles off shore form a global map visible from the sky, all of them for sale. Real estate rumors are Dubai's cocktail sport: Brad Pitt is thinking (they wish). Michael Jackson took a look. Rod Stewart has bought Scotland—no, Britain for $33 million.

Don't bother taking snapshots of Dubai's wonders today; everything will be bigger, higher, and more sensational tomorrow. The recently opened ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates, for instance, will soon be eclipsed by a snowy mountain range and polar bears in the Dubailand Sunny Mountain Ski Dome. Burj Dubai, nearing completion as the tallest building in the world, doesn't say just how high that is; it is keeping its construction options open to add a few feet in case another tower, somewhere, is about to top it. The thicket of construction cranes operating 24/7, and the maps of Dubai, where dozens of sites are marked "u/c" (under construction) are clues to the ever-expanding city.

You know Dubai is competing on the world stage when it has arguably the world's best known hotel, the seven-star Burj Al Arab, and when celebrity chefs, among them Gordon Ramsay and Michel Rostang, are overseeing kitchens. Many lesser-known but equally talented chefs who have honed their skills in three-star restaurants in Europe, Australia and the United States are producing world-class cuisine here as well, drawn to Dubai's exciting restaurant scene.

Wine In Wonderland
World-class wine is becoming a star here too: Dubai hosts an Annual International Wine and Beverage Fair in February which is now the Middle East's premier wine forum. The fair started with 10 exhibitors in 2003; last year

 Dubai fish tank
Al Mahara features an eclectic cellar as well as a tank filled wth 1,000 exotic fish.
120 producers from 19 countries, including France, Italy, Spain, South America, South Africa and Australia, showcased their products at wine dinners, master wine classes, and other events. France alone sent 30 producers, among them Baron Philippe Rothschild, Latour, Calvet, William Fevre and Moreau & Fils.

"Dubai is the up-and-coming culinary destination that will, in a very short time, rival the likes of cities such as Hong Kong, New York and Paris," says Darrell O'Neill, chef de cuisine of Al Mahara restaurant in the Burj Al Arab hotel. "It's exciting to be a part of this cutting-edge culinary scene."

The best restaurants in Dubai are generally in hotels (many in the Jumeirah Group, Dubai's largest hotel group), where deep pockets provide spectacular settings and robust wine cellars. Expect world-class hotels with restaurants to please educated palates, and cuisines as varied as the city's population, a mix of 70-plus nationalities (a whopping 80 percent of whom are ex-pats).

A leader in the culinary scene here, the spectacular sail-shaped Burj Al Arab rises 1,053 feet above the Persian Gulf shoreline. Its spacious 202 all-suite duplexes come with private butlers and a variety of electronic toys, including plasma TV screens that show the face of whoever rings your doorbell. To see the 22-karat gold-leaf columns in the
triangular hotel-high atrium, the aquarium, and the rest of the over-the-top décor, non-hotel guests need a confirmed lunch, dinner or tea reservation.

Eclectic Eats
The Burj has several outstanding restaurants, all overseen by executive chef Jean Paul Naquin. Al Muntaha, with a top floor panorama, serves a modern European menu; Al Mahara, at the very bottom, is for premier seafood; and Al Iwan, off the lobby, is for sampling authentic Arabic dishes. For the best of the Burj, take an express panoramic elevator traveling twenty feet-per-second to the Skyview Bar, adjacent to Al Muntaha, for drinks and spectacular aerial views of the Arabian Gulf and Palm Jumeirah (look for David Beckham's house at the tip of the third frond on the left). Then descend to Al Mahara (which recently won Wine Enthusiast Magazine's Award of Distinction) for world-class seafood.

A three-minute simulated submarine voyage takes you from the lobby down to Al Mahara, during which marine life seems to swim past the sub's windows as it bumps and scrapes to "dock" at the restaurant. Exit to an underwater tunnel leading to the elegant restaurant, where tables circle a huge ceiling-high aquarium that holds 1,000 fish (overseen by a seven-person aquarium team). With sharks and sting rays as a backdrop, sample some of the restaurant's signature dishes, among them Burj Al Arab's privately harvested caviar, and squid ink French bread.

Sommelier Peter Huy, recently from London's Lanesborough Hotel, can pair your choices with selections from the 300-bin cellar that stocks wines from places like France, Italy, Austria, Australia and Lebanon.

Madinat Jumeirah, with 45 restaurants, bars and lounges, has a head start on Dubai's global dining scene. Developed by Jumeirah to foster Arabian tradition and architecture, the complex replicates an Arab seaside resort with two grand hotels—Al Qasr (the Palace) and Mina A' Salam—plus a cluster of summer residences called Dar Al Masyaf, 17 pools, wind towers, its own 75-shop souk, a spa, theater, arena, over a half-mile long beach and abras (traditional water taxis) that ply two miles of waterways through the 100 acres of landscaping and gardens.

Along with its diverse restaurants, Madinat has an active wine program, with bi-monthly staff trainings and tastings and three main wine cellars stocking a collection of 550 wines and Champagnes. Sommeliers report guests favor whites from Burgundy and Chablis, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Chile although their range encompasses all countries, including China and Morocco. Red wine favorites come from Bordeaux, Italy, Australia, South Africa, California, Chile and Argentina, but also on offer are regional wines, including four top vineyards from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

One of Madinat's most interesting restaurants is Zheng He's, with a view of the Burj Al Arab from its waterside terrace. Here Executive Chef Chee Leong, who came from Singapore's Regent and Mandarin Hotels, combines Chinese flavors and Western presentations in a "new Chinese" cuisine. Look for a variety of dim sum, such as steamed crystal shrimp dumplings, and such signature dishes as sautéed diced beef with black pepper sauce, wasabi-coated prawns with mayonnaise mango salsa, and assiette of seafood delicacies, with fresh strawberries and coconut ice for dessert.

 Dubai luge
 A man-made luge run at the Mall of Emirates.
Madinat Jumeirah's other grand hotel, Al Qasr, isn't called the Palace for nothing. Here, visitors circle a fountain of Arabian horses to a portico manned by tall Masai-like men, and enter a vast lobby with blue-and-white marble striped columns, Swarovski chandeliers, and palm tree columns with silver fronds. The scale is monumental, but its restaurants tend to be intimate and stylish.

Around The World
Al Hambra is Al Qasr's bow to the rich Islamic heritage of Granada and its Spanish-Moroccan cuisine. It starts with the setting—exposed brickwork, a vaulted ceiling, terra cotta floors and a waterside terrace—and continues with a menu featuring seafood paella, tagine and bisteeya, and tapas that include Gazpacho Andaluz and Croquetas de Pollo Envueltos en Corn Flakes. Chef de cuisine Alfonso De La Dehesa, who worked at two of Spain's three-star restaurants (Arzak in San Sebastian and Ferran Adria's El Bulli), contributes his own excellent dishes, among them Rosemary-Flavored Rack of Lamb with Milk Cubes, Apricot-Apple Ragout and foie gras sauce.

Possibly Dubai's most romantic restaurant is Pierchic, at the end of a long wooden pier on the Madinat Jumeirah beach. At this stylish over-water haven, Austrian chef de cuisine, Martin Grabner, serves seafood with a Mediterranean spin. A meal of signature dishes would start with Caramelized Sea Scallops with Marinated Potato and Caviar Crème or Pancetta Tuna Carpaccio Niçoise; go on to Pan-seared Wild Sea Bass with Black Olive Tapenade or Poached Turbot with Ricotta Agnolotti, and finish with a trio of Valrhona chocolates or chocolate soufflé. The Persian Gulf vistas come with your order.

There is no shortage of outstanding restaurants beyond the beachfront resort hotels, and one that matches their spectacular vistas is Vu's, the preciously named award winner on Level 50 in the Emirates Towers Hotel, in Dubai's commercial district. In a smashing modern space, Australian chef de cuisine James Viles, who gained his formative training in Sydney, unveils a contemporary cuisine showcasing, as the restaurant likes to say, "ingredients you've never heard of, flavors you have never dreamt of." The ingredients are a mix of East and West, from European seafood and condiments to Australian Victorian Wagyu and vegetables, plus Asian fruits and spices. They turn up in such signature dishes as snow crab, double creamed eggs and beluga tian with acidic tapioca; Spanish toro tartare with lychee and coriander sorbet; and slow cooked veal, braised erengi and poached quail egg.

"The flavors are minimalistic yet sophisticated, using a wide variety of nature's elements to enhance the food and the plate," says Viles, who also says his focus at Vu's is on "vibrant, clean-cut elegance."

Vu's cellar is highly regarded, with over 472 wines, encompassing a large selection of Bordeaux, some from great wine estates, such as Le Pin 1990 and Château Pétrus 1990, Pomerol. After dinner, take the spiral staircase up to Vu's Bar on Level 51 for "vu's" of the city and beyond.

 Madinat Jumeirah complex
 Scenic vistas outside the Madinat Jumeirah complex.

To fully understand Dubai don't miss a visit to the desert. The city of Dubai, the urban part of the Emirate of Dubai, was built on sand along the Persian Gulf, and the desert starts wherever the last building stops. The place for a transcendent desert experience is Al Maha Desert Resort, where forty tent-like chalets are tucked into the surrounding dunes, each with an infinity plunge pool, awning-shaded deck, and traditional artifacts and antiquities.

The concept of desert conservation took off in 1997 when Emirates, the government-owned airline, planned a deluxe, eco-sensitive desert resort. Less than 40 miles from the city, they found a 25 square-kilometer site of rolling dunes with a wide range of indigenous habitats and a large subterranean water supply. The original site was extended to 225 square kilometers to form the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, an area almost 5 percent of the size of the Emirate of Dubai, and now the largest national park in the Middle East.

In Al Diwaan, Al Maha's main restaurant, executive chef James Webster offers a five-course menu featuring Middle Eastern and international fare that might include roast butternut soup with chili baked pita strips, "Samak Tropicale," baked red snapper with ginger, lime and lemongrass, served with coconut rice and grilled asparagus, or Filet Maa Kharishat, tournedos of Harvey beef; and steamed toffee apple pudding.

Alternatively, the Dune Dinner, set in an authentically-styled Bedouin encampment deep in the Al Maha reserve, is a feast of traditional dishes, including Middle Eastern Mezze, Saloona Samak, a traditional seafood soup, and Umm Ali dessert. Add Arabic music, Moroccan sweet mint tea and shisha pipes for a unique desert experience.

Luxury, diversity, outlandish glamour—Dubai is a fast-growing hotspot for discerning travelers worldwide, offering top-notch wine, cuisine and accommodations in an imaginative setting that truly has to be seen to be believed.

For more information, go to: Al Hambra www.madinatjumeirah.com; Al Maha Desert Resort, www.al-maha.com; Al Mahara/Burj Al Arab, www.burj-al-arab.com; Dubai International Wine & Beverage Fair, www.dubaiwinefair.com; Pierchic, Al Qasr, www.madinatjumeirah.com; Vu's, Jumeirah Emirates Towers, www.jumeirah.com/towers; Zheng He's, Mina A' Salam, www.maddinatjumeirah.com.

 

Click here for more of the February 2007 issue.

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