Winsor Dobbin dons his napkin for the culinary flavour of the month, the United Arab Emirates.
American star chef Charlie Trotter is working the room while his kitchen brigade plates up dishes like Japanese sea bream with sake sorbet and shiso; langoustine with butter clams and Iberico ham; and grilled venison tenderloins with dates and pomegranates. Trotter, who hails from Chicago, has created a seven-course degustation menu paired with five vintages of fine bordeaux, ranging from 1995 to 2004, from the renowned Chateau Palmer.
But this is not the Sydney International Food Festival or the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival – it is Gourmet Abu Dhabi .
The capital of the United Arab Emirates is an incongruous setting for such a feast. More than 75 per cent of the Emirates' population are Muslims who adhere to Sharia law; several of the guests are dressed in the flowing robes that are traditional for the Emirati. They are not able to enjoy the fine wine because the consumption of alcohol is largely frowned upon. The only exception is in hotels and clubs, where expatriates and visitors are free to imbibe as they dine. Restaurants that are not part of a hotel are not permitted to serve alcohol.
The local five-star hotels hosted Gourmet Abu Dhabi, which aims eventually to be one of the world's great gourmet festivals, attracting food and wine lovers from around the globe. Trotter was joined at the inaugural festival by fellow three-hatted Michelin chefs Alain Passard, from L'Arpege in Paris, Annie Feolde, from Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, and Santi Santamaria, from Can Fabes in Barcelona.
Other chefs in the line-up included Alain Soliveres, from Taillevent in Paris, Heinz Beck, Yves Mattagne and Lee Keung, along with Australia's Curtis Stone, who cooked a relaxed dinner for an appreciative expat audience.
Oriol Balaguer, formerly of the world's top restaurant, elBulli, conducted pastry classes, while six of the world's leading wine producers were invited to showcase their best vintages; Australia's Leeuwin Estate featured alongside the likes of Chateau Palmer, Chateau Angelus, Chateau Cos d'Estournel, Alvaro Palacios and Tenuta San Guido. No expense was spared and a similarly stellar line-up is promised for the second Gourmet Abu Dhabi, to be held from February 5 to 19. Highlights will include degustation dinners, a raft of masterclasses and gourmet safaris to several restaurants in the Emirates Palace Hotel – a massive edifice that is something of a Disneyland for adults – as well as the sleek, new Shangri-La Hotel.
Mubarak al Muhairi, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, sees GAD as "reinforcing a growing reputation as a vibrant destination by leveraging [Abu Dhabi's] gastronomic strengths".
Future events will hopefully make more use of Middle Eastern and Arabian dishes, which were sparsely represented the first year, an Arabian feast night marking a notable exception. And while Emirati cuisine can be hard to find, as it is usually cooked in private homes, there are plenty of Gulf delights waiting to be uncovered by the epicurious traveller: visit the date souk and sample dates from all over the Middle East, or feast on any number of rich pastries. The streets are dotted with pastry shops and cafes serving strong coffees.
Also check out the legendary Lebanese Flower, which serves a range of Middle Eastern dishes including what is reputedly the best chicken shawarma to be found in the region. Zawak Al Sham and Jabel Al Noor are its rivals for that honour. You'll find Emirati, in traditional robes known as khandouras (men) and black abayas (women), eating alongside Westerners wearing the latest fashions.
Pop into any number of hole-in-the-wall establishments where visitors can puff on a traditional hubbly bubbly pipe known as a shisha, or hit the high-rise hotels, where you can eat anything from Vietnamese and Thai cuisine to Spanish, German and Brazilian fare.
Al Fanar, at Le Royal Meridien, is a revolving restaurant with great views of the ever-changing landscape, while the best place to try authentic local dishes is Al Arish at the Al Dhafrah building near the fish market, although alcohol is forbidden. Diners can sample Gulf dishes ranging from biryanis and majboos (chicken baked in rice) to gisheed (minced shark) and ouzi (baked lamb and spicy rice).
Gourmet Abu Dhabi is just one of a growing number of international events hosted by the economic miracle that the modern-day Emirates represents; from a Formula One Grand Prix to the imminent arrival of outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, Abu Dhabi is racing ahead. It's all a far cry from 1962, when a report by the British ambassador in Bahrain stated: "Abu Dhabi suk [bazaar] is uninspiring ... they have never had to cater for more than the modest wants of a town of 4000 inhabitants, whose staple diet is fish, rice and dates".
The writer was a guest of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney to Abu Dhabi, priced from $2393. Phone 1800 998 995, see etihadairways.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, has rooms from AED 1450 ($434) as well as furnished residences and villas. The hotel complex houses CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La and the Souk at Qaryat Al Beri shopping centre. Phone +971 2 509 8888, see shangri-la.com.
Gourmet Abu Dhabi 2010 is from February 5-19. See gourmetabudhabi.ae.
Phone (02) 8268 5504, see visitabudhabi.ae. Australian citizens do not need a visa.