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I quite like Dubai now

There are two kinds of people: those who like Dubai (Malayalis and the Mumbai smart set, mainly) and those who hate it (nearly everybody else).

Those who like it talk about the shops, the gleaming skyscrapers, the fancy restaurants, etc. For them, it is a fantasy version of how an Indian city like Mumbai could have turned out. Not only does it seem First World, but it also has enough Indians and Pakistanis to ensure that we never feel out of place.

 

Those who hate Dubai point to Singapore, the Dubai of the East, and argue that the Lion City’s strong Chinese roots (plus, Malays, Tamils, etc.) give it a cultural underpinning.

 

   Dubai, on the other hand, is culturally adrift, a rootless city that seems to have grown out of nowhere. Some years ago, I compared it to a transit lounge because nobody you meet actually regards Dubai as home: they are all passing through and hope only to make enough money as quickly as they can.

 

   There are hardly any locals (around 10 per cent of the population, I reckon) and it often seems like a United Nations of the Third World: you see Arabs, North Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos but not that many Americans or Europeans.

 

   In most global cities (London, for instance), you will hear a multiplicity of languages being spoken on the streets. In Dubai, it is nearly always English (or an Indian language). Rarely do you hear French or Italian or Spanish. The white people are mainly Brits (who have a mysterious affinity for Dubai) and not other Western Europeans. And there is a relatively recent influx of Eastern Europeans who are visible in the hotel business and in what is euphemistically referred to as the entertainment industry.

 

   I used to hate Dubai, but over time and many visits, I have moderated my views. I quite like it now for its sheer convenience. It is safe, it is efficient, there are few urban problems, and justice is swift.

 

   Over my last two or three visits, I have found something else to like about Dubai. It is a city that lets you be what you want.

 

   I treat it now like an ‘à la carte menu’; you must only order the things you like. I have learnt to avoid the crowds and the loud, ugly highways with the rows of malls and the tower blocks full of offices and hotels that line each side of the main roads.

 

   My favourite hotel in Dubai is the Park Hyatt. I loathe the better-publicised gold-and-glitter monstrosities for which the city is known. Partly this is because the Park Hyatt is an extremely well-run hotel, but mostly it’s because you don’t really feel you are in Dubai when you stay at the Park Hyatt. Though it is in the centre of town, it is built like a low-rise resort and spread out over many acres. One of its most attractive features is the view. My room overlooked the marina on Dubai creek and I woke up each morning to views of clear blue water and the yachts that were parked at the marina. Every 10 minutes or so, a small sea plane would glide in, land on the water and whiz elegantly along the creek.

 

   Nobody I showed any of the photos I had taken from the Park Hyatt could believe I was in Dubai. The grounds looked like the French Riviera while the hotel’s architecture reminded me of Southern Europe (Spain, perhaps).

 

   Of course this was not truly representative of Dubai. Once you drove out of the Park Hyatt, you were on a typically ugly Dubai road in a few minutes. And you began to wonder: was it all a dream? Was that calm, elegant hotel really a part of Dubai?

 

   Last month in Modena, I chatted to the chef Massimo Bottura about the restaurant he will open at the Dubai W, a month from now. Bottura had quickly grasped the point of Dubai. Because it was a city built from nothing, you could do what you wanted. Nothing would seem odd or out of place – the whole city is a fantasy anyway.

 

   So his new restaurant will overlook a beach with sand imported from South Asia. It will recall the overblown glamour of 1960’s Italian cinema. None of this has any connection to the real Dubai with its endless jams on the interminable Sheikh Zayed Road but hey! This is a city of dreams.

 

"And though the Dubai economy is going through a downturn and restaurants are closing down, Himanshu’s food keeps the punters coming back."

   If the Park Hyatt can create a Mediterranean-style resort in the heart of the city, then why can’t Bottura recall the glory days of Cinecittà, Federico Fellini and even Sergio Leone? The whole point of Dubai is that you can create anything you like. Whether you want to celebrate Sergio Leone or Sunny Leone, Dubai is the place.

 

   That said, I have never been over-impressed with Dubai’s dining scene. There are few original restaurants of any merit and just as the malls are full of shops that are outposts of foreign brands (Armani, Vuitton, Ferragamo etc.), the restaurants depend on the reputations of foreign chefs who are hardly ever there and on global brands. In keeping with Dubai’s Brit connection, many of the restaurants are outposts of London brands: Zuma, Hakkasan, Le Petit Maison, Coya, etc. And there is the usual roster of London chefs: Giorgio Locatelli has been here for a decade, Gordon Ramsay was one of the first to open in Dubai and Heston Blumenthal is on his way.

 

   Even the Indian restaurants have depended on celebrity chefs (though some have come and gone): Sanjeev Kapoor, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar, Vikas Khanna, etc. But my favourite Indian restaurant features a chef who most people in Indian have not heard of: Himanshu Saini.

 

   Saini was Manish Mehrotra’s protégé at Indian Accent before leaving to join Masala Library and then briefly cooked at an Indian restaurant in New York. He ended up at Trèsind, after the owner Bhupender Nath had suffered a series of misfortunes: plans to open a Masala Library went awry, the restaurant’s name was changed to Trèsind, Sujan Sarkar from Delhi redid the menu but Nath was not wild about the makeover, and so on.

 

   Then Himanshu landed from New York and took over the kitchen. That was when I first went to Trèsind in 2015 and was blown away by the food.Himanshu, I wrote then, was ‘a real prodigy’. I said that when “we talk about the next generation of star chefs, Himanshu’s name is always at the top of the list”.

 

   I went back to Trèsind last week and was relieved to find that my prediction has come to pass. Himanshu now oversees an empire: there is a Trèsind in Kuwait as well; a second brand called Carnival packs them in, a small, super-exclusive, studio-type, entirely chef-driven, restaurant has opened next to the original Trèsind and later this year, Himanshu will finally come home in triumph at a new Trèsind in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla complex.

 

   Like most chefs of his background, Himanshu’s food was heavily influenced by Manish Mehrotra when he started out. Though he worships Manish (Daulat ki Chaat is on the dessert menu as a tribute to Manish) and makes no secret of his hero-worship of Gaggan Anand, Himanshu has his own style which is robust and individualistic. Carnival, the cheaper brand features his takes on Indian favourites from a lamb leg vindaloo to Ram Babu Paratha (after the famous parathawalla in Agra). There is very little smoke and liquid nitrogen on display and the food is deeply flavourful.

 

   The more expensive Trèsind has more serious and creative food: Chettinad chicken served with an appam made from Thai black rice; a delicate lobster ghee roast; a modern but still authentic kosha mangsho and his modernist chaat trolley, a signature of the restaurant from the day it opened.

 

   The best food however is at the studio where he shows off his mastery of Indian regional food. A slice of Waygu is served with six different Indian gravies to demonstrate how versatile Indian food can be. He makes a perfect khichri and then, bit by bit, adds 20 ingredients from all over India (from Kashmiri saffron to Telangana chillies) to show how this one dish unites the subcontinent.

 

   Himanshu has always been a little obsessed with pav bhaji (I seem to remember a pav bhaji soup three years ago) but he has finally created the perfect modern pav bhaji dish: a dumpling based on the Chinese soup dumpling. It is filled with the essential flavours of pav bhaji in liquid form.

 

   Trèsind does well in Dubai. And though the Dubai economy is going through a downturn and restaurants are closing down, Himanshu’s food keeps the punters coming back.

 

   But will the food work in Mumbai, where we already have access to the best Indian cuisine?

 

   I am going to make a prediction. I took a bet on Himanshu in 2015. And I’ll stick my neck out again. Himanshu is the true heir to Manish Mehrotra. You will be hearing a lot more about him.
 

 

Posted On: 10 Nov 2018 05:30 PM
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