A dhow in the life
There are plenty of modern marvels in Dubai, but where is all the traditional magic? Ben Watts looks at one of the city's truly Arabian eating experiences.
In the highly competitive global travel and tourism market, Dubai continues to stand out from the destination crowd thanks to its creative development efforts and chest-beating displays of innovation.
To some, the fast-paced modernisation is an attraction in itself, but for other visitors experiencing local culture is the very reason for visiting new cities - and with restaurants springing up all over the city, offering various cuisines from around the world, some would argue it has becomes harder for visitors to find the authentic side of UAE food.
But one highly traditional gastronomic experience that is still floating tourist boats is the dhow cruise dinner.
The city's first five-star hotel, The Radisson SAS, Dubai Deira Creek, is one property that offers tourists the chance to escape reality and step back in time on its Al Mansour Dhow.
The evening experience on the two-story dhow allows guests to enjoy dinner and drinks as they take a trip down Dubai Creek and back.
Appeasing the market
The hotel's director of kitchens Uwe Micheel is responsible for the property's 14 F&B outlets including the Al Mansour, and has overseen dining operations onboard the dhow for the past 13 years.
"The Dhow is very traditional, not like these modern boats you see today," comments Micheel.
"We cruise up the Creek to Al Maktoum Bridge - but no further, as the boat is too tall - and we travel out into the open sea unless it's stormy."
The cruise operates every night of the week on every day of the year and has been a major attraction in Deira for over a decade, offering guests an international buffet with a strong Arabian influence.
"Not all visitors to Dubai want to eat traditional cuisine," notes Micheel. "So we offer options - potato salad, coleslaw and similar European dishes.
"But I'd say around 80% of our buffet has an Arabic touch. I'd describe it as international food with an Arabian flair."
For the team at the Radisson, the cruise presents plenty of logistical challenges.
"Like any other outside catering, everything is prepared in our hotel kitchens and transferred in the back of a big truck so it is fresh when it goes on board the boat," says Micheel.
"As a five-star hotel we have a lot of regulations and paperwork, but like everything we do, food safety is the most important thing."
Preparing a menu that complements the journey requires a delicate balance. Over the years of overseeing the dhow dinners, Micheel has helped create a menu that caters precisely to those attracted to an up-market dhow cruise.
"It was important to look at our market rather than do what some chefs do and make menus for themselves, by saying 'I want this, I like this, this is my idea'. It's not really what the chef likes that's the important thing when constructing this type of menu," he says.
"Of course you try to put your own influences and ideas into the process, but at the end of the day it's the customers who come into the restaurant, so I must go and get to know my market.
"With the dhow we attract a lot of tourists, so we look towards local food and local culture to show them a bit of historic Dubai as we travel up the creek; it makes more sense to have hummus there then a European salad," he says.
The venture has been an ongoing success for the hotel, where it fits in well with five-star expectations.
"When you look at the range of our restaurants, from the noodle house, which is very fast-paced, to Japanese fine dining, we needed something that was very typical for tourists and visitors, yet offered something totally different," explains Micheel.
"This is why we decided to get the dhow. When you have people staying here for a week it is important to offer something unique."
Stephanie Abou Jaoude, the hotel's public relation officer, comments: "All the concierges in other hotels know about it and they tell their guests about it. It's something other hotels don't have; it's authentic to Dubai."
"It's just like a normal restaurant - the only difference is we have a captain," she adds.
Now in its 14th year of operation, the dhow has retained its popularity despite all the changes and challenges that come with being in a fast-evolving city.
Micheel points to customer comments the floating restaurant has received over the years as the perfect indicator that all is well.
"The feedback we receive is, in general, very positive," he says.
"People enjoy the cruise very much, but we tend not to have much repeat business because it's really a thing for tourists."
"We do, however, have a lot of families and corporate people bringing friends and clients to the cruise, as well as a few business groups who come when they visit the city."
The very nature of Dubai's F&B industry means that new tours, cruises and restaurants are cropping up all time time to challenge the Al Mansour Dhow's success.
Micheel is well aware of the increasing competition from rival operators.
"There are so many different boats offering different menus at different prices, from small to large boats offering a variety of different options, he says.
"When you look down the creek you can count up to 25 boats or more at any one time."
One of the most popular Creek cruise trips on offer, the Bateaux Dubai, offers guests luxury champagne dinners on a modern diesel vessel.
This French-designed cruiser can seat up to 200 diners and host corporate meetings or product launches.
Laetitia Duchet, marketing executive for Jebel Ali International, operator of the glass-enclosed vessel, explains: "The Bateaux allows uninterrupted 360-degree views of the sights and landmarks surrounding the creek."
"We serve gourmet meals and a fine selection of beverages, complemented by live music."
Radisson's Micheel feels that this cruise, while spectacular, does not offer the same traditional feel of Al Mansour. "The Bateaux has an Ã -la-carte menu but it doesn't really fit in here; it's more like a boat you would see in London or Paris," he comments. "Great food and a great boat, but it's very different."
"I don't really see it as competition as it's a different product," he adds. "I see our competition as the other dhows along the creek. There really is a healthy mix of boats for all types of budgets, which makes it much more interesting for us."
The team behind the boat is keen to highlight the dhow's key selling point - its authentic style - to visitors.
"The size of our boat and the buffet we are offering makes us unique," stresses Micheel. "No one else is offering what we do,"
The dhow, which started life two centuries ago as a cruise liner in Abu Dhabi, also features nightly entertainment in the form of a traditional Oud musician, leaving tourists to soak in some authentic Arabian magic as they glide along the Creek and into the ocean.
So while skyscrapers rocket up and cranes work away, guests on Al Mansour are doing something a little special in the region's own city that never sleeps.