I’m beginning to feel like a covert operative working for whatever the no-star equivalent of the Michelin Guide is. My blog that I started to document my evolution as a wildlife and nature photographer seems to have evolved into a diary of my quest for lesser known or hidden gems in tiny back alleys the world over. Gold stars for everyone who correctly guessed what I am referring to.
Last week marked the end of school exams, and the family wanted to celebrate. Dubai, a jump across the pond, seemed like the most convenient alternative at short notice. My family has never been to Dubai before; there are malls for shopping and theme parks for fun. Best of all Dubai is an epicurean paradise. One of the few places in the world where you can try just about any global cuisine in settings that cover the whole spectrum – from tiny holes-in-the-wall to lavish and other-worldly.
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I thoroughly researched the city-state’s culinary footprint before our trip. We wanted to try the local, and regional cuisine and boy did I find an overload of options. My friend Nilesh sent me a welcome tip about Al Ustad Special Kebab, an iconic Iranian restaurant, a short walk from the Al Fahidi metro station in Bur Dubai.
Formerly known as Ostadi Special, Al Ustad as it is now known was started by the late Mohammed Ali Ansari who fled to Dubai in 1941 at the age of 9 in a dhow filled with 40 others. He was very popular with the locals and a friend to anyone in need. You can read more about him here.
Majid, one of Mohammed’s seven children, now runs the restaurant. He has carried on in the tradition of his father and runs the restaurant like it is his second home and the customers his guests. He is full of beans and makes it a point to stop at each table, crack a joke or two, share some history about the restaurant his father first opened in 1978. It seems like a great place to work, and it shows – his staff are just as fun and passionate. One of them even serenaded us as he served us our lamb kebabs – and the song? “Ba Ba Black Sheep.”
You have no chance of missing the place, the delicious aroma of the kebabs tickles your nostrils when you’re a good 10 metres away, a sensory overload of the goodness that awaits. Al Ustad is always packed come lunch hour, especially during weekends. During weekdays office-goers in the vicinity all flock here. Regulars, some of whom have been coming here from when they were children, come from as far away as Jumeirah. The decor is unique, to say the least. Each glass table displays currency notes of different countries. The notes seemed quite real to us and probably even were. We didn’t ask. The walls are covered with photographs of guests, celebrities, including some from Bollywood (Salman Khan for one), and Emirati royals who have dined here.
The menu is short but impressive and serves perfected family recipes in very generous portions. Even the complimentary appetisers were fulsome. Before we even ordered we were served a platter of sliced cucumber, tomatoes and white onion on a bed of rocket leaves with a bowl of delicious mint yoghurt.
We feasted on Cholo Mourgh (fried chicken served with saffron rice), Joujeh kebab (boneless chicken marinated in saffron), Kebab Koubideh (barbeque chicken) and of course Chicken Soup. The kebabs are either served with saffron rice or Khubz (Pita), and you can opt for fries if you don’t want either.
The food was spectacular. The kebabs juicy and cooked to perfection. The chicken soup was the biggest revelation. It was like nothing I have ever tasted before – lentils and herbs cooked with small succulent chunks of chicken. My salivary glands have gone into overdrive as I type this out, so delicious was the soup.
We washed down our meal with unsweetened Arabic tea infused with basil leaves and topped it off with a complimentary plate of dates to sweeten our palates. As generous as the portions were, we ate more than we should have and walked back to our hotel to compensate.
What can I say about our experience? We came back again the next day, so much did we love it and that in a nutshell sums it up.