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Indian food has finally reached the top in Dubai

I missed the most high-profile hotel opening of the year (of the decade, perhaps) because I had committed to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival and the dates clashed.

But the opening of Atlantis The Royal in Dubai with the movie stars who attended, the high-voltage, high-cost performance by Beyonce (for which she was paid $24 million) and the global media attention made me wonder what I had missed.


I have followed the global progress of the Michelin Guide for several decades now. It started out as a French guide to the best restaurants and then spread around the world. I remember the excitement (and controversy) its arrival caused in London when I was a student there. The guide to New York evoked a similar response. The Japan guide made headlines around the world. (So many three stars!). And by the time Michelin launched guides in Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand etc.) its influence had become truly global.


   Last year Michelin came to Dubai. I wondered about that because though Dubai has many hyped restaurants, there are not that many that are truly outstanding.


   In the event, Michelin decided that nothing in Dubai was worth three stars. (Right decision, I think.) Only two restaurants were worth two stars but unfortunately both were run by chefs who already had three stars in Europe (Yannick Alleno in France and Niko Romito in Italy). Michelin gave single stars to eleven Dubai restaurants and most were well deserved.


   Last fortnight, Michelin returned to Dubai for a second year. And this time I was invited to the ceremony and the gala dinner (cooked by the chefs from five Michelin-starred restaurants, two of them with three stars in France and China).


   I thought I would kill two birds with one stone. I would fly to Dubai for the ceremony, and check out Royal Atlantis (as everyone calls it). I would get two different columns out of the trip, I thought: one on Michelin and one on Royal Atlantis.


   As it turned out, both ideas folded into one. And Michelin and Atlantis ended up being more closely connected than I had imagined.


   Let’s start with Michelin. By now, every foodie knows that the Guide anonymously reviews restaurants and hands out various distinctions. Just to be listed used to be considered a big deal but these days Michelin lists every restaurant that is successful or talked about so it doesn’t necessarily mean a lot.


   Bib Gourmand is a distinction given to good restaurants that are not too expensive and are still not worthy of a star. A Green star is given to a restaurant that respects sustainability, the environment etc.


   The real stars are given as follows: One star means a very good restaurant. Two stars means the restaurant is outstanding. Three stars means it is one of the world’s best restaurants. Michelin is not a popularity contest. They will not give stars to bad restaurants even if they are successful and the food quality is paramount. Hype counts for nothing.


   This year, the ceremony was held at Royal Atlantis so my two column ideas began to collide. The ceremony began with awards to individuals who had distinguished themselves. And the high calibre of Atlantis’s culinary standards immediately became obvious. The award for Best Service went to Tomislav Lokvicic from La Mar, a South American restaurant at Royal Atlantis. The Best Sommelier award went to Arturo Scamardella from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, also at Royal Atlantis. A new award called Opening of the Year went to Ariana’s Persian Kitchen which is located — you guessed it — at Royal Atlantis.


   Of the four special awards, three went to Royal Atlantis. (More about the fourth award in a bit.)


   "For me personally, the message of the evening was that Indian food has finally reached the top in Dubai."

   When the stars were announced, there were only a few surprises. Not a single restaurant lost its star, which is unusual for Michelin. All the old favourites were there: Torno Subito by Massimo Bottura, Tasca by José Avillez, Armani/Ristorante etc. Moonrise, a much talked about Dubai restaurant, also got its first star.


   The surprises had to do again with Atlantis. Ossiano, the signature fine dining restaurant (by Gregoire Berger) retained its star but did not get the second star it clearly deserved. Afterwards many explanations were offered for this remarkable injustice. One was that Michelin did not reward a single French or European restaurant that was not run by a chef who already had restaurants in Europe with more than one star. (I doubt that.) The second was that, stung by criticism that it was too French, the Guide had gone easy on rewarding French people.(It’s possible but I think the omission was just an error of judgment; even Michelin is not perfect.)


   The other huge surprise was the success of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. As a general rule, Michelin waits for at least a year before giving a new restaurant a star. The rule is broken only if the restaurant is so obviously outstanding that there is no doubt that it will get a star by the end of the year.


   By some co-incidence, I had dinner there the night before the awards ceremony and spoke to Tom Allen, the creative but fastidious chef who runs it (he has worked with Heston for years) and he reckoned he would have to wait another year to see if they would get a star. But no, the next morning, Michelin broke with precedent and gave Dinner a star though it had been open for under four months.


   It was the right decision. Tom is an outstanding chef, his food is better than the food at Dinner in London and I imagine he will get another star soon: the Dubai Dinner serves two star (at least) food in a three star ambience.


   For me personally, the message of the evening was that Indian food has finally reached the top in Dubai. When this sort of thing happens, it is usually one group that spearheads the change. In New York, it is Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya’s Unapologetic Foods that has transformed the image of Indian food.


   In Dubai, it is Passion, founded by Bhupendra Nath which is best known for Tresind Studio, the restaurant created by Himanshu Saini. Readers of this column will know all about Himanshu. Since 2015 when I first ate at Tresind, I have been hailing Himanshu as the leader of a new generation of Indian chefs.


   As the world has discovered him, and showered distinction after distinction on him, he has grown even more adventurous and his food has moved to a different level. He still looks after the excellent Tresind but his heart is in Tresind Studio, which he created later and which is easily among the best Indian restaurants in the world.


   Honestly, I did not believe he would get two stars because, in many markets, Michelin has demonstrated that it does not understand Indian food. So when Tresind Studio became one of three Dubai restaurants to get two stars I was astonished and overjoyed. The generation that Himanshu represents will change the image of Indian food forever.


   But Nath and Passion had much to celebrate. Avatara, a new restaurant (all vegetarian with no onion and garlic: which is probably why I have never been) from the group won its first Michelin star, thereby making history. No restaurant with these kinds of dietary restrictions has ever been deemed worthy of a star. Moreover, one of Avatara’s chefs Omkar Walve won the Young Chef award. And Aamara, another new restaurant from Passion which serves the food of the Silk Route made it to the Bib Gourmand list.


   So, yes, the day belonged to Atlantis. But it also belonged to India thanks to Bhupendra Nath, Passion, Omkar and of course, Himanshu.


   All over the world, Indian food is finally getting the respect it deserves.




Posted On: 02 Jun 2023 02:17 PM
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