Few places can lay claim to a dining scene as diverse as Abu Dhabi’s. For big-name chefs, it’s a place to try out a new luxury concept, while migrants from South Asia, the Philippines and elsewhere have left their mark in the form of cheap and cheerful cafes. From scruffy backstreet gems to five-star fare, here’s our pick of where to eat in the capital.
BBQ Al Qasr
Every trip deserves at least one proper, waddle-back-to-your-hotel, blowout meal, and this is the place to get one in Abu Dhabi. The gazebo-covered tables are set across a patch of beach on the grounds of Emirates Palace, the city’s most opulent hotel, with candlelight and the lapping of the Arabian sea adding to the romance. The menu focuses on grilled seafood and steak (with a selection of wagyu cuts), all cooked over charcoal in a little beach-shack kitchen. It’s far from cheap, but worth every last dirham.
Given that the owner-proprietor of this glossy steakhouse is best known for chucking salt about on Instagram, you might not expect the food to be up to much. Yes, this is the work of Nusret “Salt Bae” Gökçe, and as you might assume if you follow the man himself, the Abu Dhabi outpost of his meaty empire doesn’t have much for vegetarians. Still, the unapologetically macho meat dishes are universally fantastic, and the views over the water from Al Maryah Island of downtown Abu Dhabi are pretty special too.
Restaurants emblazoned with the green cedar tree of Lebanon are absolutely everywhere in Abu Dhabi, and most deliver strong-enough renditions of tabbouleh, moutabel, fattoush and other Levantine standards. But there’s a reason that Lebanese Mill is not only constantly rammed, but also permanently encircled by hungry folk awaiting their takeaways – it just does everything a bit better. The ultra-tender lamb chops are especially good, and the brisk service just about keeps up with the demand.
Brunching is practically a national pastime in the United Arab Emirates, with most restaurants doing their busiest service of the week on a Friday (the first day of the weekend in the UAE). Nobody does it better than CuiScene (yes, we know), an all-day dining venue within the Fairmont Bab al Bahr hotel. Curries, kebabs, beef wellington, fresh seafood, sushi, pizza – if you can dream it, it’s part of the constantly topped-up buffet, along with an equally staggering array of dessert dishes. Elasticated waistbands advised.
The more polished, hotel-based Indian restaurants in Abu Dhabi tend to dial down the heat to suit the local palate, but you’ll get none of that business at Chhappan Bhog. The small, meat-free curries that come served as part of its house thali are all robustly spiced – presumably because that’s how the city’s large Indian contingent like them – and there’s a counter of traditional sweets, all made in-house, to pick and mix from for dessert. Best of all, though, are the prices, which are just a fraction of those at Chhappan Bhog’s upmarket competitors.
Panda Bao Bao
There’s surely not a nation on Earth that hasn’t fallen for the squishy, cloud-like bao bun. At this dinky cafe, these, and other steamy dim sum dishes, come served up on cute little panda-face bowls with matching chopstick holders. The bao bun fillings stick close to tried and tested Chinese classics (beef, seafood, vegetable). Leave space for noodles, though – the spicy Sichuan option, served cold, is good, especially with a warming cup of green tea on the side.
If you’re in any doubt that the gluten-free craze has truly gone global, look no further than this slick, stylish cafe. The dreaded wheat protein has been excised from everything from western comforts (french toast, Belgian waffles, pizza) to local doughy treats such as manaeesh (a Levantine pizza of sorts), and in most cases to very little detriment. There’s even a vegan menu available on request, so if you’re looking to drop a #cleaneating hashtag, you won’t find a better spot.
Asia de Cuba
Japanese-Cuban fusion may sound like an odd, arbitrary coupling, but not only do the dishes at this high-end, beachfront spot work, they’ll make you wonder why nobody thought of the pairing sooner. There’s nary a dud among the lengthy list of small plates (don’t miss the lamb dumplings) and the selection of ceviche on the menu is especially strong; the zingy, citrussy flavours of red snapper with coriander and plantain suit the seaside setting perfectly.
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