A royal treat
No trip to the UAE is complete without experiencing an Arabian desert safari with its dinners of lamb biryani and kebabs, and performances by belly dancers and tanoura dancers amid the dunes.
Take that desert safari experience and combine it with the magnificence of a sultan’s palace topped by the service and finesse of modern fine dining and voila – you’re in Qasr Al Sultan (Arabic for the sultan’s palace), Meraas’ new dining concept is ‘more of a destination than just an Arabic restaurant,’ says Monal Malhotra, director of F&B concepts at Dubai Gourmet.
And they’re not exaggerating when they call it a destination. Situated off the Dubai Parks and Resorts in a plot surrounded by no lights or buildings for miles, the well-lit wind towers of Qasr Al Sultan rise majestically from the darkness just when you think you’re lost.
Qasr Al Sultan strives to make an impact and has been designed as such. Right from a souq-like buffet set-up that requires guests to visit each shop for their food, to a bazaar at the entrance that’s peppered with textile, jewellery and oud shops, it is reminiscent of the old Deira Souq. There’s also the Dukan Zaman – a heritage exhibition that’s a miniature replica of Dubai Museum in Bastakiya. Our three hours at Qasr Al Sultan feel like a whirlwind tour of Bastakiya. Monal agrees this is indeed a curated collage of Old Dubai, ‘Yes, UAE residents might have experienced Bastakiya’s souq but you’ll never find this dining experience and bazaar, all under one roof.’
This in part explains the hefty price tag of Dh435 per person; Qasr Al Sultan is for splurging on special occasions, and for visitors who want to compress the day-long experience of ambling around Bastakiya and Deira into a few hours. The Arabic experience radiates the most in the entertainment. Dining arrangements are in a central courtyard with a huge stage – whose crowning glory is a real dhow in the background. The five-hour entertainment session unfolds in segments and is full of Dabke, Saidi and belly dances; foot-tapping Arabic songs performed live; oud recitals and the one cheerful tanoura performer. The clear winner, though, is the opening act of pearl diving songs with synchronised dances performed to the rhythm of drums. It’s a tribute to the centuries-old pearl-diving trade that’s ingrained in Emirati culture.
‘We wanted to have a differentiator [from other Arabian-themed diners] so we got a little bit of local heritage into our entertainment,’ Monal explains. ‘Dinner is just part of the experience.’
But it’s an integral and delicious part. The souq-like live kitchens are manned by chefs who’ve previously worked at fine-dining restaurants at the Jumeirah and Shangri-La hotels and come armed with engrossing showmanship – cartwheeling knives and ladles precariously over their heads – while whipping up kebabs and manakeshes.
A rotational menu means the dishes are rarely repeated but the emphasis is on Emirati and regional cuisine with plenty of hot and cold mezzes, grills, and desserts. We kept going back for seconds of the saffroninfused Irani jewelled rice and luqaimat – an Emirati dumpling soaked in date syrup – but what made the food an absolute delight are the well-informed staff’s speedy service and friendly suggestions.
As we tour other hidden nooks of the venue we enter a reading room – a cosy stone library, with shelves stacked with fantasy, fiction, classics, Arabic books and potboilers. ‘We are probably the only dining destination to have our own library to encourage reading among both guests and staff,’ Monal says.
There are also plans to add 12 villas to the venue so guests can stay overnight.
While Qasr Al Sultan will exude a sense of déjà vu for veteran residents who’ve tried and tested all the Arabic experiences Dubai has to offer there’s no denying the lavish hospitality, quality and care that sets this inaugural venture by Dubai Gourmet (Meraas’ hospitality and F&B business) apart from its contemporaries.
Bastakiya in Old Dubai is not the only place where you can get a taste of authentic Arabian culture. Qasr Al Sultan is a valid option too