I Finally Ate at an Emirati Restaurant!

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Al Fanar Emirati restaurant, Dubai

After more than four years of living in Dubai, I still have so much to learn about the people and culture of my host country. Since I am motivated by food more than anything else, my journey into learning about Emirati culture began in June 2008 when I started my Emirati home cooking project – I would have started by eating at a restaurant but there weren’t any bona fide Emirati restaurants in Dubai at the time.

In the last year or so, a few Emirati restaurants, and even an Emirati bakery, have opened up. I was very excited to try them all!

My first visit was to Al Fanar Restaurant and Cafe – described on their Facebook page as “the first and only restaurant to offer authentic and traditional Emirati cuisine in the Emirates.”

According to the Al Fanar website:

Al Fanar (the local term for the kerosene lamp used to light the homes in Dubai at the old times) is here to feed the curiosity of visitors; a haven for the locals: an iconic showcase of exotic culture and exquisite taste.

Steps away from the Intercontinental Festival City (I normally only schlep to Festival City because of IKEA), and right alongside the man-made waterway known as Canal Walk, lies the juxtaposition of tall buildings and modern shopping mall with traditional wooden structures and replicated scenes of Dubai in the 1960s.

The outdoor dining area of Al Fanar contains majlis-style seating where, along with members of the Girls Supper Club, I sat shoeless and cross-legged, surrounded by diorama-like scenes of olden-day Emirati life: a Bedouin with his flock of camel and goats; a donkey loaded with kerosene to light the lamps of the town.

I did not see this for myself, but there is apparently an old Land Rover that is parked, ready to unload goods from a long haul. There are also regular tables and chairs for those who prefer not to sit in the majlis.

Al Fanar restaurant, Dubai
Al Fanar restaurant - outside by the majlis

The indoors dining area replicates the central courtyard of a traditional Emirati home. It reminded me very much of traditional Spanish courtyards.

To give a sense that the setting is meant to be outdoors, even though we were indoors, there is an enormous tree at the edge of a long wooden dining table.

I sat in this courtyard with Scotch and his parents a few weeks after my first visit to the restaurant. Wee Scotch was also there to help us eat the abundance of food that I would inevitably order.

Scotch’s dad shared with us that when he entered the restaurant and caught sight of a flash of tartan, he thought the servers were wearing kilts.

In another room adjacent to the central courtyard was the a replica of a Merchant’s Court Yard and old souk.

If anyone has been to Epcot’s World Showcase (part of Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL), don’t you think this restaurant would fit right in with the other showcase countries (of which there are currently eleven with Morocco being the only MENA country) because of all its highly authentic setting?

Well okay, if you can overlook the lack of booze. And the fact that the staff aren’t Emirati but are instead from other Arab nations (showcase countries in Epcot are staffed by citizens of their respective countries).

Al Fanar - Souk

Scattered around the restaurant were old artifacts like a black heavy-looking charcoal iron and this “Kajoojah” that was used in the old days for making embroidery.

It really seemed like a lot of thought and effort was put into restaurant in terms of exterior, menu, and even website design.

[UPDATE: on the design and construction of the restaurant. Thanks to the author, Devina Divecha, for sharing!)

Al Kajoojah
"Al Kajoojah" - used for making embroidery

And now on to the food!

Thanks to my Emirati cooking project, many of the items that were available on the menu looked familiar to me. I don’t think I saw the term “bezar” or “bzar” written on the menu but many items were described as “flavored with Arabic spices” which I assume refers to bezar, a spice mixture that is central to Emirati cooking.

Within minutes of sitting down to dinner, on both occasions we were presented with complimentary bowls of beans to snack on. First, were these broad beans which I stared at with apprehension because there’s just something about the texture of beans that irks me. The mush factor, maybe?

But I gave these a try. They were cold, soft, but not inedible. I don’t think they would have won favorite dish of the night but they were at least healthy.

"Bajella" - Broad beans

The next time I came for dinner the complimentary item was garbanzo beans or chick peas. They were served in a bowl with ice. Again, I gave these a try and lo and behold! I actually liked them.

They weren’t overly mushy at all but had almost a slight crunch to them.

"Dango" - Chick peas

Both times I dined at Al Fanar, there were many other Emiratis there as well including the husband of one of my dinner companions. He and his friend were kind enough to let me be my usual nosy self and poke my camera at anything and everything they ordered, including this “Shorbat Dajaj,” or chicken soup, served with lime wedges.

I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a taste but K (pictured below) pronounced that taste-wise the soup was reasonable but nothing special. I have to wonder if anything from a restaurant can ever compete with his mom’s home cooking.

An interesting note about the crockery – I was informed by K’s wife that his mom has the same set of dishes with the floral rose design.

Shorbat Dajaj
"Shorbat Dajaj" - Chicken soup

This simple mixed salad was nicely flavored – I just love the spicy flavor of arugula/rocket.

Salatat Al Fanar
"Salatat Al Fanar" - Mixed salad with special Al Fanar dressing

Like biryani, this dish known as Samboosa was “imported” from India and adapted into the cuisine by using Emirati spices.

The outside pastry was puffy but not oily looking (nor oil tasting) at all and gave a nice crunch upon each bit. The inside was full of flavor and I couldn’t believe that something vegetarian could taste so good. I can only imagine that adding meat like ground chicken would make it even more satisfying for carnivores (me!).

Racking my brain but I can’t remember what the dipping sauce was like.

"Samboosa" - Deep fried pastry with potatoes and mixed vegetables

We ordered a couple of grilled seafood appetizers and this prawn platter was devoured so fast this was the only photo I could get!

Robyan Mashwi
"Robyan Mashwi" - grilled jumbo prawns

Both the grilled squid and prawns were amazing – nice smokey flavors and I loved that the sweetness of the seafood was brought out by the grilling method.

I think I need a lesson on what to do with the accompaniments though. I am referring to the rocket and the tomatoes. Are they just for decoration or do I eat them in the same mouthful as the squid?

Nagar Mashwi
"Nagar Mashwi" - grilled squid

At my second visit we were presented with a few specials of the day and I opted to try the “habool” or fish roe. Maybe because of the oddity of it but I was the only one who enjoyed this dish and nearly ate the whole platter by myself.

It came battered and deep-fried and had a texture like chicken breast. There was not much flavor except for the battered crust.

"Hobool" - Fried fish eggs in special Arabic spices

I saw omelet on the menu and thought, “why not?” It looked more like an egg scramble and disappeared within seconds of hitting the table. It was moist and well-flavored. A very homey, comfort food kind of dish.

Beidh wa Tomat
"Beidh wa Tomat" - Omelet with tomato and special seasoning

I don’t know the official name of this flat bread but we were given baskets full to accompany our meal. It was crispy with a hint of sweetness.


Hint of cardamom. That would be an understatement for the chicken biryani that we ordered. I think my taste buds are slowly getting used to the liberal use of cardamom in Emirati cooking but some did find it overpowering. I thought the dish was a bit dry as I normally find most biryanis – whether Indian or Emirati.

Beryani Dajaj
"Beryani Dajaj" - Chicken served with rice, onions, lentil beans, raisins and almond

Machboos must be my favorite Emirati dish so far. It is a traditional chicken and rice dish flavored with bezar and the chicken is cooked in the same water used to cook the rice thus flavoring it like a stock. Onions, tomatoes, and dried limes called loomi are also used. I’ve made this dish twice myself (you can read about it here) before finally tasting an authentic version at an Emirati home which was prepared with more expertise than my own amateur attempts.

Between the two rice dishes that were ordered – biryani and machboos – the machboos rice had much more flavor and was not dry at all. But I can’t say the same of the meat. Although the meat in the lamb machboos was moister than the chicken version, it was also much bonier.

But the rice I liked so much I ate it as a side dish with everything. Screw the plain white rice.

Machboos Laham
"Machboos Laham" - Mutton cooked with yellow rice simmered in meat stock with special arabic spices

We also sampled two of the kebabs – chicken (“Tekat Dajaj Emarati”) and mutton (“Kebab Emarati” ). The chicken photo (below) is a bit blurry but you get the picture (pun intented 🙂 ).

Both kebabs were moist, tender, and nicely flavored.

Tekat Dajaj Emarati
"Tekat Dajaj Emarati" - Chicken marinated in arabic spices and yogurt

For the stews (known as saloonas), we ordered again a chicken one and a mutton one.

The “Saloona Laham bel Tamoor,” mutton stew with potatoes and lentil beans cooked in tomato sauce with dry dates and tamarind, was richer and better tasting than the chicken saloona. The difficulty with stews is that chicken (especially white meat) tends to get overcooked and becomes flavorless whereas mutton can retain its flavor better.

Saloona Dajaj maa Adas wa Batat
"Saloona Dajaj maa Adas wa Batat" - Chicken with lentil beans and potato cooked in tomato sauce, served with white rice or bread

I have a fascination with whole grilled fish but I’m often scared of ordering it on a menu because I’ve had so many bad experiences. Properly done, the spices or flavorings should enhance and not overpower the delicate taste of the fish, the fish should have smoky flavors from the grill, and there should not be more bones than flesh.

Al Fanar got it right with the hammour they served that night.

Samak Al Tanoor
"Samak Al Tanoor" - Grilled fish marinated in special spices

And for the last entree, which looks like a repeat of the appetizer (but this was ordered on a different night) we ordered grilled prawns. I think the prawns that were used in the entree version were larger than the appetizer one. They were slightly overcooked but still very good.

Roban Mashwi
"Roban Mashwi" - Grilled tiger prawns with special spices

And now we arrive at dessert. If it weren’t for my girl friends, I probably would never make it to dessert but thanks to their combined sweet tooth, we all had the opportunity to try the following…

Asidat Bobar
"Asidat Bobar" - Pumpin pudding

…Pumpkin pudding that was seriously laced with cardamom.

…Lgeimats, which are fried dough balls that reminded me of you tiao aka yau ja gwai (Chinese fried dough in long sticks popular as a breakfast food with congee aka rice porridge) but sweet and more chewy. Again a very pronounced cardamom flavor.

Our leqaimat expert of the evening commented that they were indeed chewier than the ones she’s had before.

"Leqaimat" - Golden crisp friend dough balls coated served with date syrup

…Emirati donuts that we also dipped in the date syrup from the Leqaimat.

"Khanfaroush" - Emirati doughnuts

…tapioca pudding known as “Sagoo.”

And at the end of dinner when we were stuffed to the brim and could eat no more, we shared pots of mint tea. Rose water was offered for us to rub on our hands.

Mint Tea
Mint Tea

We very much enjoyed the experience and the food though sometimes service was a little slow when we were sitting outdoors. The use (some may say overuse) of certain traditional spices (like cardamom and rose water) will take a little getting used to.

Price wise, we ended up paying about 60-70 dirhams ($16-$19) per person, so pretty reasonable. Many dishes were quite large and easily shared.

Setting-wise the restaurant is located in a great location along the water – perfect for the Dubai winters – and plenty of parking. It will be interesting to see how the business will be affected in the hot summer months when outdoor dining is not a comfortable option. If it starts relying on busloads of tourist for business (not a bad thing as the restaurant aims to showcase Emirati cuisine) I hope quality and authenticity of the food doesn’t suffer.

It would be nice to see some sort of guided experience as well – perhaps sessions on Emirati cooking or Emirati spice-tasting 101.

*   *   *   *   *

Al Fanar Restaurant & Cafe, Canal Walk, Dubai Festival City Mall, +971 4 232 9966. Please visit their website or Facebook page for more information and sample menus.

There have been a bit of coverage on the emergence of more Emirati restaurants and Emirati chefs in Dubai – you can read about them here and here. Also, Eating the Emirates is a nice article by Geoff Pound that gives a good overview of Emirati traditions when it comes to food.

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  1. Forgot to add: Excellent blog by the way! Re: your Emirati cooking project, can you recommend a good cookbook? One with lots of pics … thanks!

  2. Hi – quick comment on dryness of Biryanis. I’m Iranian and our ‘polo’ (rice) dishes are made with basmati (laced with some sort of fruits/herbs and a meat accompaniment), and even well-turned out rice can taste dry. That’s why we always serve with fresh herbs (e.g. whole leaves of basil, mint, parsley, etc), salad (esp. with a fresh citrus dressing), yogurt (plain or shallot, cucumber, spinach varieties) and torshi, or pickled vegetables (sour or salty). The idea is to load every spoonful with rice + meat + herbs/salad/yogurt/pickles (one not all!) to bring out the flavor and add moistness and ‘juice’.

    I am guessing that Arab cuisine probably works the same way – in any case, try it out and see this alleviates the problem!

  3. Wow! this is a definite stop for me next time I visit my parents. In my 25 years in Dubai, I’ve only had Emarati food at private parties. I’m not even sure there were Emarati restaurants in existence, since most of the ones serving Arabic food were lebanese.

    My husband’s always on the look out for the perfect biryani, so will drag him along.

    Thank you for sharing in such detail and your son is super cute.

  4. Yay, I liked reading this post! I just happened upon Al Fanar when I was exchanging USD for AED at Festival City (with the intent to go to the Bastakiya district for an Emirati restaurant I heard was there!). I hadn't heard of Al Fanar before but saw that it advertised Emirati food under its sign outside AND even more compelling was that a lot of Emiratis were actually eating there. The food was delicious and service was great. It's authentic as it can be – home cooking always wins 😉 – and I'm looking forward to the next chance I get to visit.

  5. I am surprised to see a garden restaurant in the emirats, isnt it very hot there?You said that in winter it is ok, how warm is it in winter?

    Al Fanar looks like a nice place to dine, as u said they took the troubel with the details, thats what I am looking for in a restaurant. Love your photography too. I know how difficult it can be to shoot pictures in a restaurant, its surely not the same like at home.

    I enjoyed your article, thank you!

    1. Hi Helene – thanks for stopping by!

      Winter in Dubai usually means that weather is high of 85F (29C) and lows of 60-75F (15-23C). Some nights in December, I have to wear a jacket out at night and I don't go to the beach in a bathing suit because it is too cold for me and I am spoiled by the warmer weather months. But my in-laws from Scotland love the beach at that time of year so when I join them, I wear jeans and a sweater.

      I tell my friends back home in New York that winter here in Dubai is like springtime in New York. So we basically have two seasons: Spring and Summer.

  6. Thanks for a nice coverage its worth visiting such place to discover the old dubai, cultural background, most importance trying the right spices of emirate food.

  7. This is the first review of an Emirati restaurant that actually makes we want to try the cuisine. My only quibble would be why are they offering hammour which is so overfished here. As an Emirati restaurant they should no better. I shall add to my 'to dine' list. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I still haven't eaten a single thing in almost 6 years that is actually considered "Emirati" so bravo! And yes, you're right- that place would definitely fit right in at Epcot!

  9. I'm glad you wrote about this place, been meaning to go for sometime now! Though what I'm not sensing is that the savories are not necessarily that unique or differentiated from what we get at the Lebanese / Iranian places…except maybe the machboos and seafood (I'm guessing they marinated/spiced the seafood with spices that weren't the same ones that you'd taste in a Lebanese joint)…or the stews? Going to visit Al Fanar to figure out what really differentiates Emirat cuisine from the other Arabic restaurants in town…

    1. I think the Emirati spice – bezar – is quite a unique blend and once you smell it once it kind of stays with you.

      One thing I did not touch upon in my post is the logistics of eating – hand versus utensils. Not sure what the tradition is for Lebanese/Iranian….

  10. Such a great review! and what a feast! Looking forward to checking it out b/c I've only had Emirati food twice since living here. I wish it was easier to experience on a day-to-day basis. By the way – your son is just adorable – it always makes me smile to see him trying different things. and he's getting big! 🙂

    1. Do check out Al Fanar and I hope you post about the experience as well!

      Yes, Wee Scotch is getting bigger and bigger…and more and more opinionated!

  11. I love how thorough you are when writing about new experiences – I always learn a lot from your posts and this was really interesting. I really hope that this restaurant does well so people can literally taste a bit of the local culture.

    1. Thank Sally for the kind words. I hope the restaurant will do well too – the expansion plans mentioned in Devina's article sound interesting.

  12. Cool! I've been waiting for my Emirati friend to return to Dubai on her vacation so I can go with her, so she can tell me whether it's authentic or not 🙂 I think that will be in a few weeks yay!

    I don't know if this will be of interest to you but I visited them recently to write this feature on them for my magazine; purely interior design but hopefully you might find it an enjoyable read: http://www.designmena.com/portfolio/future

    1. Thanks so much for sharing the article – I am going to include it in the main post.

      A "theme park specialist" huh? No wonder the place felt like it could fit into Epcot!

  13. Ohhh I think I'd like to give Al Fanar a go 🙂 Didn't have such a nice experience at another older Emirati restaurant.

    I also used to eat fried fish eggs at home 🙂 Fish egg fritters in egg -flour batter dipped in soy sauce and calamansi (of course, a Filipino dipping sauce staple). I wonder how these would taste like with a special spice mix.