Dubai’s Fishy Delight: A Friday Lunch at The Barracuda

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“We’re not open yet Ma’am,” she says, to my deep frustration – the website says they open at 10 am. “Come back maybe after 1? Everybody is praying.” Every now and then I am reminded I live in a Muslim country. It’s easy to forget, with all the boozing and frivolity that I live in the midst of.

But here, at Barracuda, I am reminded that God comes above all, even a request for lunch at a reasonable time (12:30). Friday may be brunch day, but it’s also holy day. As my penance, I turn away, hungry, reserving a table for 1pm. “Better make it 1:30 ma’am, just in case”. Well it is Dubai after all – we wouldn’t want that rubber time to snap back into place, would we – that might just upset the entire system.

A return at 1:30 reveals a different restaurant. Lucky we did reserve that table – the room is half-full already. At the back, are a crew of eager orderers. They are checking the daily catch. The noise back there is like at a market stall – all languages are spoken, tumbling ice, slapping fish flesh, clattering steel plates on age-browned scales, there’s even a little jostling and raised voices. I take my lead from them and attend the fray.

Bouri (also known as biah, wagena or grey mullet) feature prominently – they’re the cheapest, and popular, with their firm white flesh and fat little bodies. Their faces are shaped like the end of a shoe, with sad cloudy eyes falling off the sides of them – they’re not for me. There’s plump spotted hamour (orange spotted grouper), the tastiest and most tragically overfished. They’ll be popular, but they’re large, and not cheap – family celebrations will fit the bill.

The two-bar sea bream (faskar) with golden wings are the sustainable choice, and taste much like my favourite fish but they’re a little on the small side today. So I’ll go with my old favourite, the snapper (hamra) – shiny, clear-eyed, and large enough for four. Next time I’ll try the pink-eared emperor – they were just a little too large.

Then there’s some squeaky clean local sole or Samak Moussa, glaring at me cockeyed like a Picasso portrait. Yes, funny lady, with your sweet tender flesh, you’re mine. There’s Omani lobster, shiny, coloured and coated like an enamel broach, delicate manna crabs, blue-fingered and painted with shadows of sunlight through seaweed. And prawns of course – both monstrous and middling.

My fishmonger smiles and nods – he approves my choice. They’re weighed and slapped onto a plate with no apparent marking, which is taken to the kitchen without fuss. With the cacophony that surrounds, I’m not sure I’ll ever see them again. A waitress asks me how I would like them cooked – fried, sizzling, lemon and oil, radda, with shredded potatoes, singary, grilled or tagine. I throw in a couple of suggestions with a raised eyebrow and plenty of doubt, also some rice, a prawn tagine and some cuttlefish to go with, and return to my seat.

The family are already well entrenched. They’ve attacked the trolly dolly, a lady with salads, sides and starters, who is walking around yum-cha style. The kids are on their second packet of pita already, and the others are tucking into a subliminally good eggplant dish – it’s roasted and marinated in tomato and who knows what else – it’s gorgeous. It might be the ‘mesakaa’, or simply the ‘eggplant’ listed on the menu, but who needs to know – we just take another bowl as Dolly passes by again. We gorge on other things – a lovely roca salad, a fair fattoush, silky garlic dip, and then the cuttlefish arrives. Goldilocks (6 year old son) eats most of it before Lion (9 year old) discovers it’s not scary and he likes it. A fight breaks out over the last piece.

Within half an hour, the place is crammed. People are sharing tables and even every outside seat is taken, despite the 37 degree day. The crowd is the most diverse I have seen in a restaurant in Dubai. Aussies, French, Sri Lankans, Lebanese, Spanish, Japanese, Pakistani, and more nationalities fill the tables. It seems everyone is in on the secret that has taken me three years to discover. The sole arrives, skin removed, battered and deep-fried whole. It’s crisp, not the slightest bit oily, perfectly seasoned. It’s scraped to the bone, flipped, cleared again and then gone – faster than the cuttlefish.

Then the pièce de résistance – the Snapper Singary. We’ve ordered it cooked in an Egyptian method, where the fish is opened from the back, as it is for Iraqi Masqouf. Then it’s covered with spices and softened onions, parsley and garlic, and garnished with sliced tomato. It’s then oven baked quickly on a high heat. It’s incredible. I think it might almost be better than Masqouf. It’s soft, incredibly juicy, delicate, and so easy to eat without the spine running through the centre. The kids take slabs and roll it in pita, while I add slices of pickled green chilli to my mouthfuls. My husband quietly moans with pleasure in the corner.

The prawn tagine gets lost. We wait, not caring, knowing that we are too full to fit another thing in. The kids order deserts – ornate and special ice creams off a laminated sheet that reminds me of the tartufo menus in old fashioned Melbourne pizza restaurants. Lion’s lemon sorbet arrives in a lemon, smoking cold. We’re just about to ask for the bill when the tagine comes. We groan a little, then shift our bellies back under our belts and tentitively tuck in. It’s good, very good. And we just cant’ stop. The prawns are small and sweet – not particularly amazing, but good enough. The secret is in the sauce – onions softened almost to the point of french onion soup, and flavoured with garlic and dill. We ditch the cutlery and use our bread as spoons, sopping up every last bit.

The whole idea of select and eat is a hot one with me. I enjoy the promise of fresh produce – you actually get to see and touch it before they cover it with marinade. (And after years of working in restaurants and delis, I can tell you, not everything looks as pretty going in as it does coming out of a kitchen). There’s plenty in Dubai to get your fix – My fave is Barracuda, but there are some other great ones too.

  • Flooka at DXB marine. The concept is similar, but you can have a pint with your prawn. Fresh fish on ice, choose your variety, your method of cooking, some sides, and wait. The venue is clever – entirely upstairs with a split-level terrace. From here you can watch the sun set over a tiny bay. They do a whole fish baked in rock salt, some lovely small fried fish, and a fish falafel they need to work on. Great casual atmosphere and not overly expensive considering the view, liquor licence and location.
  • Fish Market at the Radisson Blu – Creekside institution with water views, tropical decor and a fairly extensive range of fish, which can get very expensive if you do not choose wisely. Everything is displayed market-style, including the vegetables, so allows a fairly novel experience. Licenced.
  • Seafood Market at Meridien Garhoud has a Far-east theme to their seafood, which is generally swimming around in tanks before you select it. Known for their XO seafood rice. Licenced.
  • Far East Seafood Market – at the Regent Palace is a more budget version. They have a small market selection some live fish (including in an underfoot aquarium), and a famous all-you-can-eat seafood deal. Plenty of theatre with the Teppanyaki -style feasting, but also some Keralite flavours. Probably the cheapest place to get a wine with your seafood feast.
  • Mi Vida can be found at Le Royal Meridien down by the beach in JBR. Reviews are up and down, but the range is very good – plenty of imports, including live Canadian lobster, and a good local range. Licenced
  • Halakat Al Samak near Kings Dubai in Umm Suqeim is another more budget offering, reviewed by  Geordie Armani and Coffee Cakes and Running (linked). They also serve Singary style fish. Unlicenced.

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