Dull and Predictable: The Real Taste of Dubai

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Last weekend was my second experience with Taste of Dubai.

If the festival was an accurate representation of the taste of Dubai, the stalls would have been a mix of Lebanese grills and dips, puffy khubz direct from the flame, devilishly hot Pakistani curry, rows upon rows of crisping drippy chicken and mutton for shawarma, the occasional dhosa with sweet spicy chutney, and of course, the treats – baklava and cupcakes (what the fascination with cupcakes is here, I really can’t understand), and polystyrene cups of steaming hot sweet tea made with evaporated milk. The air would have been ripe with garlic, fat, cardamom, rosewater, coconut, coriander and cumin, all topped off in a fine mist of icing sugar.

The stalls would have been selling portions at 5AED. The queues would have been two deep and fifty wide. The entry price would have been 30AED, but many would just push through the gates and get in for free. An ’80s Philipino cover band would have been blaring out inappropriate songs. Stalls would have been haphazard, scattered like freckles on a red-head, more than half of them unlicensed. There would probably be a gas barbecue in a corner somewhere that would inevitably blow up. Then everyone would stand around watching and arguing, nibbling paratha and blaming anybody else, all the while blocking the paramedics. By the time it was finished, there would be a traffic jam in the carpark, and be fifteen thousand people stranded somewhere in the desert, with three taxis to shuttle them back to town.

The next day someone would write to 7days about it, and what a cacophonous stuff-up it was, and half the expats in Dubai would tweet in agreement.

But it’s not like that at all. “Taste” festivals are franchises that operate all over the world, and so the finished product is an amalgam of the taste of the city concerned, and what the organisors deem it should taste like. In all, it’s always quite… ahem… tasteful.

It was, like last year, in a well located area, at the Media City Amphitheatre – a large grassy knoll surrounded by good four-star hotels, taxi ranks and nearby to the metro. As in 2011 the entry was well policed and organised, tickets were remarkably easy to purchase, and nobody got in for free (except me, because I write a blog about food). Inside were plenty of toilets, an ATM, and rows of marquees delivering four dishes from each of Dubai’s best restaurants at prices between 15 and 40AED. Again there was the theatre for cooking presentations that actually had enough seats for the crowd, and a cooking school with a not unbearable queue signing up for free classes. In a secluded corner, they tucked away the drunks and the screaming children in the beverage theatre and kids play zone (I’ll let you guess who went where).

So, what does “Taste of Dubai” taste like, if it doesn’t really taste like Dubai?

Pretty much exactly the same as last year. The same restaurants showed in the main. Many also had the same menus as last year. I suppose this is just as well, considering one could never try all four from each outlet in one festival and get home alive and well. So I could skip the white tomato soup from Rhodes Mezzanine, the dynamite prawns from PF Changs, or the fish and chips with mushy peas from Rivington Grill. Instead I sampled from the newer openings – crab and green papaya (lacking sweetness and tang) from the Siddhartha Lounge, Stracciatella cheese from Armani Peck (a bland mozzerella soup), from ToroToro some tasty dense and crispy yuca fries with “mojo” (whatever that is – it’s good) and a heavenly Dulce de Leche cheesecake from Gaucho

Good to see this year were some smaller producers – Spontanious Euphoria cookies, Bloomsbury cakes, Raw coffee and Yummy Tummy. Also a great surprise was the last minute appearance of Table 9, who apparently managed to wrap it all together and fill a stand-in spot with just 48 hours to blast-off. There was a string of celebrity chefs – some from last year, some not. Some with a Dubai presence, and some not so much (why they are included in a “taste of Dubai” festival, I’m not sure, but it’s nice to see the likes of Aldo Zilli and Atul Kochhar regardless). As I stumbled from marquee to lounge to other marquee and other lounge, I invariably met other fooderati. One had cooked under the watchful eye of Giorgio Locatelli, another had just interviewed Gary Rhodes, and one had got her Nobu cook book signed by the lovely man himself. The food groupie success stories were rife.

But it wasn’t all good. The MMI beverage theatre disappointed this year – it was hidden, too casual, too quiet when the serious stuff was going on, and converted to a rowdy beer garden when the seminars were over. In typical Dubai form, the ATM had a conniption at the pointy end of the day and refused to dispense any more funds, leaving those without financial foresight to go hungry. Another let-down was the VIP lounge, which seemed to have nothing in particular extra than the main arena, and a security guard on the gate who was completely uninterested in checking passes (I walked in twice without a pass). But the greatest disappointment was that there was not really anything significantly new this year as compared to 2011. Not that I could see, anyway.

And that, to be honest, is actually a fairly typical taste of Dubai.

A fellow blogging friend asked me earlier this year if I could give her a glimpse of my crystal ball for Dubai 2012 tastes.  I sent her about a thousand words telling her why that was the wrong question to ask. In a nutshell, I think Dubai is too new, too small, too diverse  and too busy following others to have original trends. And Taste of Dubai is an example of this – the formula is staid and predictable, copied from other markets, almost entirely unoriginal.

Half the restaurants featured are not unique to Dubai. I could find no primary producers from the UAE, and no Emirati restaurant represented. A great shame, as I truly believed that this year would see a rise in the awareness of the great local produce and historic cuisine. Shows how effective my crystal ball is. Dubai has, as usual, either forgotten or pushed aside its squishy innards, and instead given us a safe and easy “taste of the-rest-of-the-world”.

Mind you, I’m very glad there were no gas explosions.

7 Responses to Dull and Predictable: The Real Taste of Dubai

  1. Cath 29/03/2012 at 2:24 PM

    Quite right Sarah – as one of the organisers of Taste I concur that the festival this year was reminiscent of Taste 2011 but there is a reason for this.

    The concept for Taste around the world is a winning formula that has proven with its year on year growth that it’s what the visitor wants.

    Taste of London, for example, does have numerous other features but when you have 10 times the area to develop this allows for many other options. That’s not to say we are limited in Media City but when the uptake in exhibitors is so high there are limitations to the additional elements we could plug into the format.

    On the other hand there have been many improvements to the features – the area where MMI Beverage Theatre was located this year was actually busier than 2011, the VIP Lounge was far superior to previous years and enabled those with the affordable VIP ticket to redeem their drink tokens in a chilled out, relaxed area. The Cookery School and Chefs’ Theatre have developed into something of a ‘must see’ – where else can you stand in front of your favourite chef whilst he/she teaches you to create a masterpiece? Prior to 2011 there wasn’t a Kids Zone so strengthening the offering for families was high on our agenda as was the entertainment – the music at Taste of Dubai has made the transformation from background bandstand to main stage festival soundtrack.

    The concept is not just about the city itself – if that were the case you would only be able to sample fish and chips, jellied eels and roast dinner at Taste of London. The idea is to offer fine dining to the masses – to give visitors the opportunity to try dishes from some of the world’s masterchefs and see them in action on stage. Admittedly there are more and more ‘festivals’ popping up on Dubai’s social calendar but what Taste presents to those deliberating over which event to attend in March is the incredible world class food matched with an entertaining day out in the sunshine with ‘that chef off the telly’ actually willing to have a conversation and a photo with you.

    We are always looking at ways to develop our events in line with feedback received and word on the street is that this was the best festival to date which is a tough act to follow for next year. As someone once said “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

  2. David 29/03/2012 at 10:44 AM

    FYI, I know Taste will be listening because the owner of the company reads MidEastPosts 🙂

  3. David 29/03/2012 at 10:41 AM

    Hi Sarah, yes I probably was out of line. I just sort of disagreed and had to get it out. I think the point may be every event has multiple audiences. For Taste you probably have your gourmets, and then people like me who love to eat food, but without the passion for really understanding it (too greedy). For me it was about a good night out, not a culinary journey. I do take your point that there will be a sizable audience for whom the latter will be the point.

    I am sure Taste is listening… One of the organisers told this year was its most successful yet in terms of visitor numbers, so I am sure they are working on ways to make it better for everyone next year.

  4. sarah walton 28/03/2012 at 12:24 PM

    Thanks for the feedback David, and you are absolutely entitled to enjoy an event that I thought was a little lacklustre!

    But I’ve enjoyed a little chatter on both twitter and my own blog, and also verbally. Saying that my views are not in line with the majority I would suggest is a little out of line. Did you go last year? My main complaint, as I said is not that the event is unenjoyable, but that it is firstly a little bland, and secondly after going in 2011, I’m not so sure I should have paid again this year (although I did not pay to get in, I did pay for everything I ate and drank), because there was nothing new to experience.

    I hope that someone important out there is listening when I critique also, because I am sure that many more will enjoy 2013 if they attempt to bring something new to the table…

  5. David 26/03/2012 at 11:27 AM

    As a non food purist (but someone who likes food very much!) I have to say the fact that there was not a huge amount that was original did not even register. In fact I quite like the fact the big well known 5-star names are all in one place, tapas styley.

    What did register to me, was that the food was in abundance, it tasted beautiful (for the most part), there was a variety and above all that people were genuinely enjoying themselves. It was a great night out – in as you said a great setting.

    I think sometimes critics don’t see what most people do, or are looking for what most people want – which is to be entertained, looked after, well, fed and to leave for home happy.

    Taste 2012 did that for me, and I would imagine for the bulk of the visitors who had attended.

    I guess it’s what your expectations and your desires are to start with… I would also say, that as a critic, yours are not aligned with those of the vast majority – which I guess is kind of ironic!

  6. Sandeep Sharma (@sharma_sandeep) 26/03/2012 at 10:26 AM

    @the_hedonista ‘s take on Taste Of Dubai

  7. Jayson Biggins (@outdoorgrilbri) 26/03/2012 at 9:08 AM Dull and Predictable: The Real Taste of Dubai – MidEastPosts

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