Eye on Dubai
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: Eye on Dubai

Eye on Dubai

As a dining hot spot, desert city Dubai is about to get even hotter.

In the past year or so, the dining scene in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) city has been sizzling -- and now some Singapore restaurants are jumping in.

Top gastronomic guides, which debuted in 2022, continue to put Dubai, known for its luxurious shopping and glitzy nightlife, in the spotlight in the first half of 2024.

In January, the third annual edition of the Gault&Millau UAE Guide was released with 137 restaurants -- a whopping 119 in Dubai and 18 from Abu Dhabi.

In February, the Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants list featured 16 Dubai establishments, five of them in the top 10.

The third edition of Dubai's Michelin Guide will be out on July 4. Currently, it has 11 one-Michelin-starred restaurants and three with two Michelin stars.

Dubai Calling

Dubai is quite the culinary hot spot, with a growing crop of Singapore food and beverage brands venturing to take on the city's competitive dining scene.

Scottish chef Tristin Farmer -- culinary director and chef-partner of the Culinary Arts Group -- will open an outpost of the group's modern Indian grill restaurant Revolver, as well as his own 40-seat restaurant. The group also runs Michelin-starred establishments Hamamoto and Araya in Singapore.

Both Dubai restaurants are slated to open by the last quarter of 2024 at The Opus, a mixed-development luxury building in Downtown Dubai.

It will not be Farmer's first rodeo in Dubai. The 40-year-old chef lived there for three years from 2015, when he set up British chef Jason Atherton's Marina Social restaurant.

He highlights certain similarities between the two cities -- both are vibrant markets with diverse clientele, fierce competition and high costs. However, each comes with its own set of regulatory, cultural and operational challenges.

For instance, hiring manpower is easier in Dubai, he notes, as it offers a "vast talent pool" as well as straightforward hiring processes and visa applications for expatriates.

On returning to Dubai this time, Farmer, who will shuttle between both cities, says: "There are upcoming local talent and brands that push the industry to become better. The entrance of the Michelin Guide and World's 50 Best has also had an impact on the dining scene."

In Singapore, Revolver has a new group executive chef and partner: Jitin Joshi, 48.

Like Farmer, he is also familiar with Dubai, having spent more than eight years living and working there.

His experience there, managing multicultural teams, procuring supplies from overseas and serving a well-travelled expatriate community, helps him feel at home in Singapore, he says.

Like Singapore, Dubai's dining scene also has a high turnover rate -- leases typically span between three and five years.

He adds: "This shorter lease period contributes to a high turnover rate, with many operators unable to sustain their businesses. However, the success stories demonstrate that, with the right product and execution, Dubai can be an extremely lucrative market for F&B businesses."

Another Singapore-owned F&B business in Dubai is Shiok restaurant, run by former Singapore Airlines station manager Ivan Lee, 41.

He opened a cloud kitchen called Shiok in December 2021, followed by a dine-in space in February 2022.

His latest location, opened in November 2023 in the residential Jumeirah Lakes Towers district, replaces the original cloud kitchen. Shiok offers casual dining with a menu of Singapore classics such as chicken rice and char kway teow.

In an interview with The Straits Times in January, he says he has no plans to return to open in the "overly competitive and saturated" Singapore market.

Other Singapore chains that have ventured to Dubai include TWG Tea, Bacha Coffee and Hawker Chan, known for its soya sauce chicken rice.

There is "sustained interest" from Singapore's F&B companies to expand there, says Mr Rahul Ghosh, director for Middle East and Africa of Enterprise Singapore, who is based in Dubai. Some of these have opted to franchise their brands, due to the highly competitive nature of the industry and costs involved in setting up a restaurant directly, he adds.

Singapore Scene

It is not just one-way traffic to Dubai.

Several F&B businesses from the city are also making their mark in Singapore.

Mr Ghosh says: "Singapore is attractive to international F&B companies, including those from Dubai, not only because of our vibrant lifestyle scene and cosmopolitan population, but also our conducive business environment.

"Moreover, Singapore's strategic location in South-east Asia means these companies see it as a natural landing pad to expand in the region, where they can tap the region's significant Muslim population."

In July, world-famous dining and nightlife hot spot Sushisamba will make its debut here on the 52nd floor of the Capital Tower skyscraper in the Central Business District.

Sushisamba Singapore is brought in by Dubai-based hospitality and investment company Sunset Hospitality Group, which has a strategic partnership with Dubai-based investment company Shamal Holding, the brand owner of Sushisamba, to operate Sushisamba's outlets here and in Dubai, as well as upcoming ones in Abu Dhabi and Milan.

The Sunset Hospitality Group's vice-president of Asia James Oliver Burton, 41, told ST in a recent interview that the group is in the process of signing a "fantastic resort" -- a hotel with restaurants -- to create a "culinary hub" in Singapore.

Other recent openings here that have branches in Dubai include Indian restaurant Bombay Brasserie in South Beach Avenue; and Torno Subito in Dempsey, an offshoot of the one-Michelin-starred Italian concept in Dubai by chef Massimo Bottura.

In November 2023, Dubai-based Singaporean chef Akmal Anuar, 42, returned home to open modern Malay restaurant Harummanis Sultan Gate in Kampong Glam.

Formerly the head chef at one-Michelin-starred Iggy's at voco Orchard Singapore hotel for seven years, Akmal is the founder of Dubai-based F&B consultancy firm White Rice Co, and runs six restaurants across the UAE and New York.

His most acclaimed brand, 11 Woodfire in Dubai, holds one Michelin star, ranks No. 14 on the Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants list and is on the Gault&Millau UAE Guide.

His upcoming openings include a high-end Japanese restaurant in Paris, as well as a second Goldfish Sushi & Yakitori outlet in Abu Dhabi.

Since opening here, Akmal has faced several challenges such as inconsistent ingredient quality, dealing with suppliers who take cash from newbies in the market, which hurts daily cash flow, and the high cost of taking on employees with limited F&B experience.

He says: "In the 11 to 12 years living abroad and returning home yearly, I felt Singapore had so much to offer. Now, having my own business and immersing myself into the workforce, it's a bit shocking to see how things have become worse."

He notes, however, that while the average spend is higher in Dubai, the quality of the dining scene there can vary, with a "mediocre middle sector" sandwiched between low- and high-end concepts.

He adds: "Singapore has a lot more mid-tier options with casual and approachable concepts. Here, people are spoilt for choice with various cuisines islandwide. In Dubai, people go for the brand, ambience and location, such as beach clubs and rooftop venues."

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.