This was officially the first time we were going to experience Emirati food and needless to say we that we were really looking forward to it.
Edited on 16 May, 2020: Al Fanar not only has several branches in Dubai but have also opened up in other emirates, as well as in London and Riyadh.
Another favourite blogger of mine, My Custard Pie’s post where she willingly admits to being a guinea pig for for the prototype outing being road-tested for Frying Pan Food Tours made me keep awake the whole night thinking whether I could organise something for my folks in the similar line. Arva did manage to chalk out a few joints that promised a similar food experience that emanates from her own posts. However, being unsure of whether my not-so-old-yet-behaving-much-older-than-they-are parents would have the same levels of energy munching Shawarmas in one joint, crossing the road in this summer heat to another joint to have some Falafels and then off to another to have the Baklava. Come October, we promise to surely hop on to her tours but decided to spare my ‘old’ folks the agony of going ecstatic over hopping, munching, sweating and finding a parking slot – all simultaneously. At the same time my brother’s insistence in taking him somewhere spectacular not in-terms of fine-dining but in terms of a soulful experience kept me on tenterhooks. Finding Al Fanar was indeed a soulful rescue. Not only did it win over my parents but also my little bro and the Z-Sisters.
Al-Fanar Restaurant & Café
Al Fanar is the first and the only restaurant in the UAE serving Emirati cuisine. I haven’t yet heard of a restaurant serving Emirati food. Our previous experiences in Arabic food had been limited to mostly Lebanese food, Jordanian food, Egyptian food and Iranian food. The UAE’s expatriate population had till now, a very limited opportunity to know about the Emirati Cuisine until and unless someone has had the chance to be invited by an Emirati into his/her home. We have been living in Dubai for quite a while and every time a guest would visit us and wished to taste local food we would take them to mostly Lebanese restaurants for a taste of Middle Eastern food. The only Emirati food experience we have had till now was the occasional Leqaimat (golden crisp fried dough balls coated with date syrup and sesame seeds) cooked up by the local womenfolk at Heritage Village or the UAE kiosk at Global Village. This was officially the first time we were going to experience Emirati food and needless to say we that we were really looking forward to it.
The concept of Al-Fanar
Al Fanar refers to the kerosene lamps that were used to light up homes in Dubai in the olden times. The ambiance recreates Dubai in the 1960s, when Dubai was just a small town on the Arabian Gulf surrounded by Al Badia Oasis. The out-door seating is amidst tents and Barasti huts and reflects the trading activities of a by-gone era – fishermen, pearl merchants and bedouins. Painstaking details have gone into the making of an authentic ambiance. It is a 4D experience with the smells of freshly burnt Bukhoor (scented bricks that are burned in incense burners to perfume the home and clothing) and oudh drift and hit one’s senses. The remnants of a wooden fishing boat, a blue old Land Rover with goods heaped onto it’s back, an old box television set, pots and pans, traditional wind-towers marking the interiors, grilled wooden windows – each and everything lends to the charm of Al Fanar. It built up an odd sense of drama and a huge amount of expectation on the food that we have come to devour!
The decor: Contrary to Al Badia, the out-door set-up of a bustling old town, the inside brings us into an inner courtyard of a Tawash, or the traditional home of a Pearl Merchant’s house. This houses the Bait Al Tawash, the main dining area.Like the Reception Area, the walls here too have artefacts and many curios dating back to 1960’s Dubai. Framed Black and White pictures hanging on the walls brings out an elegance and an age-old charm. Sitting under the canopy of a tree, I look around and am mesmerised by every little attention given to the detailing – an old carpet hanging over the railing on the first floor, the real sunlight filters through the grilled windows onto the curved arches and coarse walls along with artificial lightings that bring to bring in the reality factory. After the initial wait (though not much as we had prior reservations), we felt quite relieved to have secured our seats. Being a Friday afternoon and the courtyard was completely packed. The proportion of Emirati diners seem to be much higher than the non-Emirati diners – something that intrigued me. Why would an Emirati come to a restaurant to seek the pleasure of his local cuisine that is probably being cooked daily in his home? Well, it’s the story of the tragic death in traditional home-cooking in most cuisines that have invaded the lives of most modular small families worldwide.
The Courtyard throbbed. From diners, from the waiters running up and down taking orders and serving the hungry diners, from children crying in prams, from groups chatting across the tables. Amidst all these, there was this relaxing atmosphere that pervaded most of the space. This seemed to bring in a sense of enjoyment all around. And No! we were not left feeling neglected. Prompt service satiated our thirsty souls (quite literally!).
The drinks: As we sipped down our drinks like a desert sponge (if there exists something like that!) we realised that our Friday heralded even more better things. Fresh Juices of various colours invaded our senses – Swoosh-and-then-Gone-in-a-minute! Pineapple, Orange, Lemonade with Mint, Watermelon – the juices glasses couldn’t even linger on within our fingers even for a minute. Blame it on the heat, blame it on the distance walked from the Parking to the Canal Walk of the Festival City where Al-Fanar is housed or blame it on our thirst and greed, who cares? Immediately, some more beverages by the name of Namlaits were ordered. These were bottled drinks that were also being sold at the Reception area priced at Dhs 13/bottle.
The food: We were slightly famished so the border in our brains that patiently waits for the appetisers to get over and the main meals to start simply seemed to have momentarily vanished. We wanted everything together! Huge trays carrying all our food and resting on a singular hand reached us safely and sound. I have always wondered how the staff in most Arabic restaurants do this. A major feat and an art by itself, I would declare.
Starters: Dango – Chickpeas in bowls awaited us in the table, complimentary – but they lasted only for a while!
Koftat Samak – These are crumbled fish balls (Samak means fish) mixed with onions and coriander leaves mixed in Al-Fanar’s signature spices and then deep fried. We gulped them down like tablets. All that was left was the Al-Fanar Tomato Sauce that was served along with the Koftats. We asked for this Tomato Sauce too, at-least four times, not because they came free, but simply because we loved that too!
Naghar Mashwi – Delicious, grilled squids with a good portion size, enough to serve more than three people. Mashwi refers to Grills.
Robyan Mashwi – Grilled, Tiger Shrimps (Robyan means Shrimps), similar to the char-coaled grilled shrimps available in the Lebanese restaurants.
The Mains: I would say whatever we ate from henceforth was, well to be honest absolutely delish and an ultra-sensory experience. However this doesn’t mean that our gastronomical journey so far was any less.
Jesheed – Baby Shark cooked with onions and Arabic spices, crumbled and served with White Rice. This was something I haven’t tried before. But probably I hadn’t heard the word ‘Baby Shark’ when Mr Danish, the Marketing Manager had recommended the dish!
Samak Mashwi – Samak or Fish grilled (Mashwi) with special Arabic spices and served with white Rice. This was specially for my Dad who prefers fish over any other meat.
Machboos Dajaj – Dajaj or Chicken cooked with Yellow Rice simmered in chicken stock and special Arabic spices and dry lemon. Machboos consists mainly of mutton, chicken, or fish placed over or mixed in a large mass of well-cooked and prepared rice. It is popular in many Gulf countries & across Saudi Arabia. Incidentally, it happens to be the national dish of Kuwait.
Beryani Laham – Mutton served with a mix of Rice, onions, raisins and almonds.
Machboos Dajaj and Beryani Laham turned out to be the stars. The Chicken and the Mutton in the respective dishes were so soft, succulent and mildly spicy. The aroma of the fine rice, the tinge of herbs – both the taste of both these two lingers on. What is the difference in the cooking method between Machboos and a Beryani? Or what is the difference between Machboos and the Indian Rice Dish, Pulao? The answer to the latter is nicely explained here. But I am still searching for the answer to the former, while licking on my fingers!
After my last piece of prawn that I managed to hide and savour from my family (well, as such all the members in the family are generous enough except when it comes to sharing food!) got devoured shamelessly I ventured into some photography. A mini-break before the desserts! Honestly, each little detailing held me in awe. And that starts with the pink rose designs on the plates that we were served. Apparently most traditional Emirati households possess similar cutlery collection belonging to either the Grandma or the loving Aunty! The entire ambiance emanated the basic philosophy of Emirati hospitality and generosity. Meals, I have heard are generally large family affairs, with many conversations and notes of daily proceedings taking place over the dining table. On the other side of the courtyard across the corridor was the casual dining area – Souq Mosheq. Souq Merchandises on the shelves and a long table with locals enjoying their meal lent a gay casualness to the air.
Desserts: Well, our fondness for sweets can’t be helped but blamed on our Bengali genes. Our taste-buds wouldn’t be satiated till we signed off our meals with some sweets.
Ferni – My parents ordered Ferni, a Rice Pudding that was a less sweeter version of the Indian Rice Pudding with the similar name, Firni.
Cake Al Tamor – The date cake, deliciously soft and absolutely yummy – this got to be a winner!
Leqaimat – Ah these magical golden fried dough balls coated with date syrup and sesame seeds can be a subject of my food dreams for many more days to come. Luqaimat is a popular Middle Eastern dessert consisting of deep-fried balls of pastry. The Z-SISTERS went berserk and so did we. I am trying to justify their super-fast disappearance into our tummies! You will see in the above photograph below where one such magical ball is anti-gravitating (meaning floating up) and simply disappearing. Where’s the fork? Where’s our hands? Did our tummy magnets just pulled them in? Really, I have no clue to how this happened. All I know was they disappeared in seconds!
The Sign-off: Did we have a satisfying experience – oh absolutely! S declared he was going to come back for Machboos Dajaj and Beryani Laham, specially the latter which he laments didn’t quite reach his plate. Is Al-Fanar very expensive? I wouldn’t say so. For the novelty and experience you are getting, plus the amazing portion size I think Al-Fanar does shine. But prior reservation is absolutely essential considering the number of diners lining up. As we were leaving, Danish, the Marketing Manager who had previously helped us choosing some brilliant items from the menu, led us through Bait Al Serdal, a new section which is about to open soon. While Bait Al Tawash captured the inner courtyard of a traditional Pearl Merchant’s house, Bait Al Serdal will have private rooms where one will be served set menus. Definitely beckoning us to come back for sure!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post, nor are there any affiliated links for any of the brands that may have been mentioned in this blogpost. We paid for all our meals at Al Fanar Restaurant & Cafe (www.alfanarrestaurant.com), the lunch cost us approx Dhs 100/person and the portion size was really generous. The subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and all images are from my personal album. While you enjoy reading my posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts.
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