After being in the food tour business for two years, I don’t know what on earth I’ve been doing writing about one-off restaurant experiences in backstreet here, or hidden alley there. I eat, live, breathe food trails every day of every gluttonous week – and this blog needs to reflect that. So from now, I will switch my old frying pan out for a more exciting one that sautés cherry-picked eateries into a mélange of gastronomic tummy-titillating experiences to keep you foodgasming for hours on end.
[Realistically, I’m just going to smack together a few eclectic joints that no one in their right minds would eat at all in the same day. But Right and Deliriously Belt-Popping Happy are two very different things.]
So without further ado, this blog is to now become the blank canvas upon which I will embed scrawlings of fledgling trails – aspiring food trails that may grow up to be best-selling experiences someday, saviour food trails that you might embark upon when one flimsy meal won’t cut through the craving, unborn food trails that may…well, rot like chickenshit in the cluttered closet of this blog. But whether you follow the trails or not, you are now eye witness to how my evil kadeevil constantly-munching mind works and we’re all in this together, whether a trail lives till our grandchildren embark upon the same edible journeys, or whether the trail dies a silent, unrecognized death on some SEO-failed URL in forgotten cyberspace. We are in this TOGETHER.
[Oh, and happy new year.]
Trail Name: [Sobbing over] Supping about Safa Park.
Trail Distance: 8.17 kilometres for the long-stretch option and 3.66 kilometres for the brisk trail.
Trail Rationale: We, the people who have grown up loving Safa Park, are heartbroken to see the greenery being razed down to make way for a smooth, shiny man-made canal with visions of Venice. Let us seek solace in our food discoveries and in the simple back alleys of the area. When you next drive by the balding Safa Park and have the overwhelming urge to bury your face in a fat overpriced cheeseburger, try this trail instead and eat your way out of the misery.
Adventure Level: None whatsoever, though you can be a daredevil and try to complete all 8.17 kilometres of the long-stretch trail option on foot. At 3.66 kilometres, the brisk trail option is a breeze. If you plan to walk, aim to start at about 5pm when the weather is cool (end-October to mid-April) and cancel any dinner plans for the evening. Obviously.
Trail Route: Iranian kababs (long-stretch option) OR Emirati regag (brisk trail option) -> Camel meat shawarma (optional, only if you want bragging rights) -> Parsi fish -> Emirati fritters (luqaimat) and roadside karak chai
Long-Stretch Option - With the Iranian Kababs
Brisk Trail Option - With the Emirati regag
Stop 1 (Long-stretch option): Iranian kababs at the oddly named Control Restaurant. [Phone: 04-3443077]
Control restaurant is about 5 km away from Safa Park, all the better because it's depressing to begin any noble eating mission right by the construction wasteland that once called itself our childhood park. Another great reason to include it as a starting point is because it serves Iranian kababs, and that alone makes our food mission almost…historical.
The Iranians have a long history in the country and in addition to providing some of the foundational trading blocks of Dubai back in the early 1900’s, they also set the standard for a superior kabab. Dry, rubbery, overcooked nubs of meat are simply not acceptable. Control Restaurant is one of the many Iranian kabab eateries that can help you define your standards. It is a the branch of the same mind-blowing 28-year old kabab haunt in Tuar that I’d written about last year. While I was a total douchebag and didn’t release the Tuar location on the previous post, I’m going to be exceptionally generous with the coordinates for this location in Jumeirah (see google map link below).
Even though Control Restaurant is much newer (1.5 years old) and has not inherited the al fresco park ambiance of its parent location in Tuar, it does the same incredible marinated kababs. The long and short of what you should order is this: if you’re a chicken lover, their boneless chicken tikka (orange in colour on the menu) is undoubtedly the winner. If you love lamb, the majority vote in the past has gone to the chunks of lamb lemon tikka, and a small minority (aka me) loves the minced log called koobideh, even though my opponents have accused it of tasting too strong or eggy in the past.
Warning: They don’t speak English here, it’s mainly Arabic and maybe some Urdu. Make sure to use the google map (below) to find the location. Menu pointing will help immensely when you order.
For the purpose of the trail, it is best to stay away from rice (even though the pilaf with sweet-tart zereshk berries and butter is enough to make you ditch the trail and just eat your entire meal right here) and just get one, maybe two skewers on a piece of bread along with a digestive bottle of super salty doogh. And nothing more. Just eat, lick the skewer, take a selfie with an empty plate tagging #iphone6 #instafood #goodlife #kababBaller, and drive/trudge 5 kilometers up to the next stop.
Walking/Driving route: Try to walk/drive down Jumeirah Beach Road and soak in the plethora of restaurants and boutiques down that road. I always spot something new to try, it's one of those roads that never gets boring. You can also take a small digestive detour towards Kite Beach (marked on the map below) which has a lovely jogging/walking track and a great community vibe. As you walk down Jumeirah Beach road, you will eventually hit up on the Seashell Cafeteria to your right, and then take the right onto Al Athar Street soon after.
Alternative Stop 1 (Short Trail Option): Regag at Labeeb Grocery on Jumeirah Beach Road
If Control Restaurant feels too far outside the your Safa Park radius, then keep things more constrained and just start at humble old Labeeb Grocery on Jumeirah Beach Road, right across from Arz Lebanon. They make fresh regag, which is essentially an Emirati crêpe with totally unFrench ingredients like eggs, cream cheese, chilli sauce, mahyahwah (fish sauce) and Omani potato chips - all in one crackery bundle. You get regag at almost every festival in Dubai and I find it hard to vouch for it as something wildly special. But I won't deny that I enjoy watching how they spread the dough on the regag pans. If you're not sure whether you want to try it or not, you can watch this video I did with an Indonesian TV crew, minutes 2:21 to 4:41.
Stop 2 (optional): Camel meat shawarma at Zaina. [Phone: 04-3944990]
If you over-ordered and went far past the one kabab per person limit at Stop 1, then skip Zaina and move on. But if you walked off the kababs or you opted for the lighter regag option and still have tummy space for three more courses, then you may as well lob a camel meat shawarma into the game. This stop also helps to delay that soul-destroying moment when the clumsily shaven face of Safa Park veers into view.
Zaina is one of those non-descript cafeterias with its only claim to fame being the “Zaina Camel” section of the menu: Camel kabab, Camel shawarma, Camel shawarma plate.
The 8-dirham camel shawarma is a fair bargain, with a few chunks of what feel less like shawarma shavings and more like chopped-up bits of ground camel kebab. The pita is so severely stuffed with leaves that you have to gnaw through a forest of greens to get to each camel chunk. But the meat itself is appropriately tender and caramelized, almost lamb-like to the taste but with a much heavier after-effect on the tummy after you’ve scarfed the camel roll down. I’ve never felt light and springy after consuming camel meat, and this sandwich checks off that heavy, hump-in-my-tum feeling that I’ve had in the past after consuming camel meatballs, camel kabsa or dry fried camel.
This shawarma will never make it to your ‘Best of’-anything list, but at least you can walk away from the food trail saying you’d tried a camel meat shawarma in Dubai.
And who wouldn’t kill to say that?
Stop 3: Parsi Patra ni machi at Kebab Bistro. [Phone: 04-4409300; ext:578]
When you step out of Zaina, you have no choice but to face a severely bruised Safa park, with all its former glory now heavily bandaged up with red and white construction barricades. Stop in respectful silence, say a prayer for every other surviving park in the city, place a brick on your nostalgia and keep walking on for another 2.5 kilometers – about the same distance of the now-destroyed jogging track around the Park-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.
Steps away from the new urban restaurant and shopping developments down Al Wasl Road, a cramped little Parsi restaurant promises to reward diners who stumble across it with a fish marinade so flavourful that even a Bengali blogger like Mita can’t fault it.
The Parsis are a small community of the original Persian Zoroastrians who left Persia during the Muslim invasion after the 8th century and made India their home. While they are famed for their culinary talent back in Mumbai, I’ve never had a chance to taste their cuisine until this first experience at two-year old Kabab Bistro.
Patra ni machi is made by slathering fish with a thick coriander-mint-coconut paste and then steaming it in a banana leaf so that all the flavours create magic in a bundle. Traditionally, the fish of choice is pomfret which may be served at Kabab Bistro if you give them a three-hour heads-up. We tried the less authentic version with cream dory, but the lack of authenticity didn’t keep us from forking off every last morsel of chutney and moist tender fish off the leaf. It was all I could do to not grab the leaves and scrape them clean with my teeth, oreo-style.
With dessert still pending, the sweet lassi or mango lassi might be overkill on a food trail, so opt for a tall glass of digestive, salty buttermilk and retreat before your eyes get attracted to other intriguing Parsi words on the menu like mutton sali boti (which I would highly recommend, paired with the accompanying shoestring potato chips and an order of tender tawa paratha) and chicken farcha (which I wouldn’t order again – bony egged-up chicken nuggets are just not my thing).
If you really had room, and I mean, REALLY truly had a considerable amount of tummy space still left inside you, then and then alone should you order the mutton sali boti or the Parsi dhansak with brown rice. Dhansak is boneless mutton cooked in a creamy broth of lentils, a broth that does exceedingly well when slopped over nutty brown rice speckled with caramelized onions. Where the broth excels, the chewy mutton chunks do not, so you may consider trying a veggie dhansak to save yourself jammed jaws.
When you’re done, step out and smell the flowers. Literally. There’s a plant shop that has created a dreamy little space right outside the restaurant. Walk about the block, pop a button, and get ready for dessert.
Stop 4: Luqaimat at Nasmat Al Sahra Cafeteria [Phone: 04-3430490] and Karak Chai at Istecanat Shay [Phone: 04 3854445]
Thankfully, the last two stops are on the same block as Kebab Bistro, so you’re just steps away from the finish line.
While it would have been prudent to walk through the trail rather than drive, I will admit that this last stop fares best as a drive-through. The local, authentic way of ordering karak chai is by pulling up outside the cafeteria, lowering your window and honking so that the teaboy can run over for your order. It sounds terribly lazy, privileged and spoilt, and make no mistakes about it, it is. But drive-through chai is part of Dubai’s definition of authenticity and I’m not using my blog to fight it.
Nasmat Al Sahra serves a mean cup of well-boiled karak chai with the aromatic gust of cardamom and ginger ruffling through your nostrils on the first sip, followed by the comfort of Rainbow evaporated milk to wash down all the sins of a food trail past. But upon closer comparison, One shop down, Istecanat Shay does a more cardamom-spiked version that is the stronger, more fragrant brew of the two rivals.
Both cafeterias fall just nanometres short of the sickly sweet concoction that most other chai joints around Dubai tend to serve, but don't expect the best chai in Dubai here either. Expect nothing more than a chai of conveniently-located redemption, a chai that will help pull you away from the brink of food coma even as your fingers are pushing you right back to the edge with toothpick-fulls of luqaimat: deep-fried dough dripping with sesame-specked date molasses (dibs). The Filipino who fries up these Emirati dumplings at Nasmat Al Sahra does a reasonable job – a bit too doughy, but every third luqaimat will aspire to that near-perfect balance of outer crisp and internal pillow, all doused with liberal double-dipped amounts of dibs.
Restaurant Locations: Open https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zOr9LeKZFoJk.k_Pnyxhd0WVU and click the layer in the left box labeled '001 Food Trail: Supping about Safa Park.’
Google Pedometer Map:
Long-Stretch Option: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=379028. I actually believe that the ambitious walker would suffer a net loss of calories if he/she were to perform this food trail on foot (ideally paired with jumping jacks at every stop light.)
Brisk Trail Option: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=379233. This one is definitely walk-able when the weather is right.
Post-Food Trail Digestion suggestion: If you haven’t walked the 8 kilometres to complete the trail, then drive up to the Open Beach that’s close by for a post-digestion walk. Stroll off the layers of food, whilst reminding yourself that for every tree razed down to make way for a fake canal through Safa Park, the small guys are still out there in the backstreets, just doing their eclectic culinary thing rather than trying to be Venice.
(Until they all get recruited to row gondolas down the fake canal.)