Embark on a Culinary Adventure in Sharjah

14 May 2019

With my first-ever visit to Sharjah approaching, I wanted to find out if what I’ve been hearing is true: that while much of the U.A.E.’s culinary buzz is centred a short distance down the coast in Dubai, Sharjah, the country’s third-largest city and its cultural capital, has emerged in its own right as a destination for imaginative gourmet dining.

Indeed, Sharjah itself is on the verge of a renaissance of sorts as the Heart of Sharjah preservation project restores the city’s old town as it was in the 1950s. The cornerstone of this decade-long enterprise is Al Bait Sharjah, a 53-room upscale boutique hotel which opened in December last year and whose dynamic culinary offerings are said to rival those anywhere in the U.A.E.—or beyond.

I reached out to the resort’s Executive Chef Ashish Deva, who oversees Al Bait’s two restaurants—The Restaurant, The Arabic Restaurant — The Café and The Ice Cream Shop and asked him to recommend five unique dining experiences I shouldn’t miss.

The first meal he suggested, I have to admit, caught me by surprise. I don’t normally associate camel meat with elite gastronomy, but the chef assured me that not only is The Restaurant’s 24-Hour Braised Camel a true delicacy, but it has won effusive praise from everyone who’s tried it.

This popular regional dish is traditionally served during weddings, Eid al-Fitr, and other special occasions. At The Restaurant, the locally sourced meat—typically the hind shanks or hind leg—is braised for a full day with fragrant spices like sumac and zaatar. The lengthy cooking process makes the meat exceptionally tender. “It’s almost like butter—you don’t need to use a knife,” Chef Ashish said. After it’s cooked, the meat is shredded and wrapped with fava beans inside a crispy, crunchy filo casing, and topped with sumac burrata and muhamarra, a spicy sauce made of roasted peppers, walnuts, pine seeds, olive oil, garlic, and cayenne.

“One local Emirati gentleman gave me the highest praise, saying he eats camel once a year in his home but that this is the most satisfying way he’s ever experienced it,” Chef Ashish said.

In The Restaurant, citrus dust accents a seared duck breast complete with crispy skin and a smooth garlic mousse.

For an introduction to two other regional favourites—with a twist—the chef urged me to try Wagyu Beef Fatteh and Short Rib Ouzi at The Arabic RestaurantThe fatteh, a hot starter, combines warm boiled chickpeas, roasted cumin, and garlic, served with tahini, pine seeds, and yoghurt. In most local eateries, the dish is made with braised lamb, but at The Arabic Restaurant it comes with tender wagyu beef, which adds a more sophisticated, full-flavoured complement. Just before it’s served, the fatteh is covered in hot ghee, making the plate sizzle while giving off a tantalisingly rich aroma.

In The Arabic Restaurant, burrata cheese and tomatoes strike a rather contemporary pose.

Ouzi, Chef Ashish explained, is like an Arabic version of biryani, a popular rice dish made with fragrant long-grain rice and enriched with nuts, dried fruits, and ghee. What makes his version special is that his beef short ribs are cooked sous-vide, which traps in the profusion of mouth-watering spices, including fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and saffron, among others. It is then served alongside cucumber yoghurt, pine seeds, and dried lemon.

As a diehard chocolate lover, I was told I couldn’t leave Sharjah without experiencing the Mini Chocolate Garden at The Restaurant. The dessert involves a veritable “production” that plays out atop the guests’ table. A tableside chef uses six kilograms of premium Valrhona chocolate to fashion an entirely edible garden: from pebbles, soil, and rocks to flowers, mushrooms, pathways, and even little Smurf-like huts with liquid-nitrogen smoke billowing out their chimneys. “It’s a playful and creative interpretation of a chocolate lover’s dream,” Chef Ashish explained.

Mini Chocolate GardenChocolates sprout like mushrooms in this Mini Chocolate Garden, available in any of the resort’s eateries.

The entire presentation lasts around 20 minutes, reaching its climax when the chef uses a wooden gavel to smash open a large “chocolate bomb” in the middle of a garden filled with other kinds of chocolate, from brownies and liquid chocolate to crackles and more.

Although the dessert is intended for a minimum of two people, the spread involves so much chocolate it’s unlikely any couple could finish it in one—or even two—attempts. “You will have death by chocolate,” Chef Ashish said with a laugh.

Drinking Pearls & Gold

Sharjah may be a dry emirate but that hasn’t stopped Al Bait from making drinks a centrepiece of its menus. “It’s inspired us to be more creative, using ingredients you might not normally find in a bar. The results have been fabulous,” said Chef Ashish, pointing to the hotel’s Inspired Drinks menu as proof of their success.

Whether to drink or admire is the challenge. This lavender concoction combines grapefruit juice, lemon juice, lavender syrup, raspberry syrup, blue Curacao syrup, pearl powder and soda. 

These refreshing and often playful concoctions include selections like Lavender, made with fresh-pressed grapefruit, lemon juice, lavender syrup, raspberry syrup, blue curacao syrup, and soda, in addition to a “magical” special ingredient: pearl powder. “The pearl powder sits at the bottom of the drink. When you stir it, the glass is transformed into a beautiful swirling cloud of pearls,” Chef Ashish said. “It’s amazing.”

Another, Blue Raspberry, mixes fresh blueberries, lemon juice, berry purée, honey syrup, rosemary, soda, and gold dust—yes, 24-karat certified edible gold powder. The rosemary sprigs are tied together like a small broom, with gold dust sprayed on it, and when you stir your drink it becomes infused with the rich herb—and actual gold.

This soda creation is an artful melding of passion fruit pulp, green apple juice, lime juice, mint leaves, ginger ale — a real twist of the classic mojito.

Finally, take your prior notions of afternoon tea and leave them at the door, Chef Ashish told me. “We don’t want people to have a perception about high tea when they eat here. Everything from traditional high tea is incorporated but in a more fun and playful way,” he said.

And so, said Chef Ashish, the Tray for Two. From the caramel hazelnut mousse, whose pure hazelnut base is made in-house, to the boiled egg roulade, which is served as a Swiss roll, each sweet and savoury mini-dish comes as a pair to be enjoyed alongside a “choice of your favourite potion.” Many guests order coffee or tea with their food, of course, but just as many like to explore the Inspired Drinks menu or other non-alcoholic bubbles seeking the perfect pairing, Chef Ashish said. Another unique point: the Tray for Two is served all day, from 10:00 am — 7:00 pm, in The Café. “We can’t see why somebody wouldn’t want to have it at 11 in the morning,” the chef said.

Tray For TwoDoris Day made Tea for Two famous 70 years ago; Al Bait hopes to do the same today with its Tray for Two.

To travel even more deeply into the culinary heritage of Sharjah, book Indulge in Style: Sharah Untold, which includes a cooking class for adults and kids.

Text by Bill Bredesen for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: This classic Moroccan dish of mixed meat and couscous served at The Arabic Restaurant indulges the zesty appetite.

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Indulge in Style: Sharjah Delight