Abu Dhabi is striving to become the culinary capital of the Persian Gulf, writes Leisa Tyler.
The first time I heard about Abu Dhabi's fledgling tourism industry was from the in-flight entertainment system on Etihad Airways, the United Arab Emirates' national carrier. "Welcome to a land rich in cultural heritage - of poets, song, dance and music," the film waxed poetic, flashing images of stunning sand dunes and flocks of birds flying over an azure sea.
Abu Dhabi's quest to reinvent itself as a tourist destination isn't new. Hoping to diversify its immense wealth, or perhaps tired of hearing about neighbouring Dubai's chase for the world's fastest, biggest and tallest, Abu Dhabi has been busy adding a few superlatives of its own. Sheikh Zayed Mosque, built to commemorate the founder of modern Abu Dhabi, has the world's largest carpet and chandelier; at $US3 billion, the kitschy Emirates Palace was reportedly the world's most expensive hotel to build; when it opens, Ferrari World, which virtually hovers above the ground like a giant red stingray, will host the world's biggest indoor theme park. Fresh from hosting the second Abu Dhabi Gourmet Festival this year, this city of 1.5 million is now vying for yet another title: cuisine capital of the Persian Gulf.
It's a big call for a little city without a strong gourmet tradition. Flanking an archipelago of 200 islands, in 1960 Abu Dhabi was little more than a scattering of palm-frond-thatched houses fringing a crescent-moon bay. The inhabitants were Arabs, who risk life and limb to supplement meagre incomes by diving for pearls in the Persian Gulf. Their diet was limited to what would survive in the scorching desert heat and consisted mostly of one-pot goat stews, fish, camel milk, dates and flat bread cooked over earthen fires.
Today, few of these dishes can be found outside the home; "local food" refers to Levantine mezze and kebabs instead.
Oil was discovered in the early 1960s and Abu Dhabi is now, according to Fortune magazine, the richest city in the world; each citizen is worth about $US17 million ($18.2 million).
"Abu Dhabi knows it doesn't have a history or culture in fine dining but they are heading in that direction," says the organiser of the Abu Dhabi Gourmet Festival, Peter Knipp. "In a few years, they will have another 20 or 25 international hotels open, all with fine-dining venues. By inviting big-name chefs here, they are building the foundations for what is to come".
Staged for a fortnight in February, this year's gourmet festival drew an impressive line-up of 21 chefs who gave demonstrations and degustation dinners, including Charlie Trotter, from the eponymous Chicago restaurant; Alain Passard, of L'Arpage in Paris; and Australia's Thai-cuisine guru, David Thompson.
"Abu Dhabi's cuisine culture is purely manufactured," Thompson explains over a glass of wine and plate of his mahor - zesty bite-sized pieces of pineapple and mandarin stuffed with curried chicken and prawn at the super-slick Yas Hotel, one of the latest lodges to open. "They are starting from scratch [and] so have the chance to create both the scene and culture".
Abu Dhabi is a conservative Muslim city where only hotels are permitted to serve alcohol, which raises the question: how do you create a gourmet destination where booze is strictly controlled? I ask Monique Safayan, a Lebanese-born communications executive for Abu Dhabi Tourism, who laughs without offering an answer.
I also ask her how much the festival costs the Abu Dhabi Tourism Board and if it expects a return on the investment. "It is not about making money," Safayan says, "but about putting Abu Dhabi on the culinary map.
"There is talk that the gourmet festival has nothing to do with trying to put Abu Dhabi on the map," a food magazine editor from the US tells me one night, while we consume an Arabian culinary extravaganza on the lawn of the palatial Shangri-La Hotel. "Instead, like everything in the Emirates, it's the sheikhs competing with each other for prestige. They just like to be able to say: 'I had Charlie Trotter cook me dinner."'
I get a glimpse of prestige Gulf style at the Emirates Palace, the ostentatious playground of Abu Dhabi's glitterati and where the sheikh and his family keep a complete floor.
Waiting in the lobby for a friend, I watch three Ferraris, a Lamborghini, two Hummers and a Maserati pull up in 15 minutes. At the hotel's Havana Club, a shot of Hardy Perfection cognac sells for $US2581.
I am here to eat at Sayad, the Emirates Palace's seafood restaurant and regarded by some as the city's best diner. With ethereal blue lighting and fish tanks buzzing with tropical creatures, Sayad pushes all the right buttons for style and service but I find the sauces and accompaniments too heavy for the delicate fish serving. My nacho of crab is overpowered by oily corn chips; the roasted lemon sole soaked in a creamy lobster tarragon sauce.
Like Dubai, which boasts a string of star-chef satellite restaurants - including Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes, Vineet Bhatia, Pierre Gagnaire and Nobu - there are rumours Abu Dhabi is gearing up to welcome a few of its own, including London's pricey Chinese diner, Hakkasan.
The restaurant of the English chef Marco Pierre White was the first to open late last year, with a steakhouse and grill at the dazzling new Fairmont Hotel Bab Al Bahr in Abu Dhabi. Known as much for his temper as his food, White has designed a homely menu of cholesterol-laden favourites such as potted duck with green peppercorns and orange marmalade, rich french onion soup and wagyu rib-eye beef from Margaret River with truffle cream sauce and triple-fried potato chips.
It's very good but not quite as delectable as the festival degustation menu by Sydney duo Grant King and Greg Doyle. Matched with Yarra Valley's Yering Station wines, the lobster blini with osetra caviar is exquisite; the tian of king crab and raw scallop ceviche with pea salad and jus verges on sublime.
"People say, 'We wish we could get food like this all the time,"' King says the next day. "But give it five or six years and I bet you there will be half-a-dozen high-end super-chefs with restaurants here."
Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Board.
Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi (14hr 25min) for about $1580 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.
The Fairmont Hotel is the newest and sleekest abode in town, with 369 spacious rooms and a chocolaterie. Double rooms from $AED899 ($265); see fairmont.com.
The space-age Yas Hotel straddles the formula one racetrack on Yas Island and has seven dining options. Double rooms from $AED751; see theyashotel.com.