Graduating from the food court

When four people in a family each enjoy different things, and one is a vegetarian besides, the easiest and cheapest way to enjoy a good meal is to go to a food court. But after a point, the crowds irritate, the choices pall, and the kids grow more adventurous. That’s when it’s time to check out the hundreds of cafés or affordable restaurants around Dubai. You’ll have to shell out a good hundred or so more, but surely, it’s worth it for good food and ambience.

I’m not talking about the Zumas or Nobus or Wheelers but the far more accessible The Paul, Carluccio’s, and PF Chang’s – chain restaurants which still manage to stay away from bland, mass-produced flavours.


The Paul

The Paul is one of my very favourite places – apart from my room – to be in the UAE. Its ambience is everything I could ever ask for in a café. There aren’t too many choices for veggies on their menu, and I found their goat’s cheese quiche and croissants very eggy. I did love their crepes, and my caffeine consuming philistine friends swear by their coffee.

I haven’t tried their few veg salads, pastas and sandwiches yet, and that’s only because I adore their soups. I can’t resist nipping in each time I pass by and asking them what their soup of the day is, and if it’s vegetarian as it most often is, I treat myself.

I’ve feasted on their potato and leek, red pepper, tomato, cream of broccoli, and lentil soups. Of course, I choose to ignore the fact that they aren’t strictly vegetarian as they contain chicken stock, but the taste is by no means obvious.

Your soup order comes with a basket full of delicious rustic breads, and little pots of yummy tapenade and creamy butter. You can make a meal of it and I certainly do!

Il Forno, Sahara Centre

My friend and I had a sudden craving for Italian food, and Il Forno was chosen as it was halfway between both our homes. My friend ordered a beef lasagna, while I picked the ravioli which had come highly recommended on Zomato. One of the reviewers had suggested that diners ask for the pink sauce, a mix of their arabbiata and alfredo sauces, which was off-menu. I did, but not only did our rather unfriendly waiter deny that they could do any such thing, he also warned me against ordering the red sauce and looked very put out when I said I wasn’t keen on the white. This was mainly because it was a spinach and ricotta cheese ravioli, and I didn’t want more cheese in my sauce.

il forno

However, the arabbiata came with a huge layer of thick mozzarella floating above the sauce. The ravioli was average, the sauce was tasteless and the mozzarella overload was nauseating. Personally, I like Parmesan or other cheeses – even a bland, processed cheddar – anything but mozzarella, with pasta. My friend’s lasagna got much better feedback though.

Bennigan’s, Sahara Centre

At Bennigan’s, which is an Irish American pub, it was the opposite. Service was excellent, and I loved my order, a filling potato and lentil soup, followed by a Meditterranean Salad with a delicious balsamic dressing. bennigans2

However, the non vegetarians were less then enthused with their steak orders. For one thing, they were unaccustomed to getting their sauces out of bottles, instead of drizzled on their plates. bennigans1

Predictably, portions were huge – my soup came in a tub, and the haloumi pieces in my salad were the size of tea coasters. My husband and son could barely finish the steak let alone the sides, and the beef was pronounced to be tough and chewy.

Gazebo, DCC and Mirdiff City Centre

Gazebo is one of the most popular upscale choices for Indian food here in Dubai, and its reputation is well-deserved. My husband swears by its dum-cooked biryani, while my kids love the kebabs. I’ve had yummy stuffed mushrooms and paneer preparations here.

Carluccio’s, Deira City Centre

Carluccio’s is a tad more expensive than the other eateries on this list, and the ambience of the Deira City Centre branch could certainly be a little more luxurious. We keep going back because we have our favourites here. The beef medallions are delicious as are the lamb cutlets. Be warned though, portions are small and each order is good only for one person.combo_Fotor_Collage

The pastas are more plentiful and my daughter and I often split them. The spinach and ricotta ravioli comes in a delightfully light sage and butter sauce, unlike at Il Forno, as does the pumpkin tortelli. I’ve sampled the rosemary potatoes and the penne arabbiata too, and both are good. But my favourite veg dish here actually comes as a side with the lamb cutlets – the eggplant caponata, which is a slightly sweet, pine-nutty preparation with a distinct olive oil taste. I break my rule of not touching anything that’s been on a plate with non-veg dishes, as soon as this lands on our table.


PF Chang’s

We’d been meaning to go to PF Chang’s for well over a year before we actually did. It is almost always packed. Luckily, this New Year’s day, we managed to find a spare table for a late lunch.

pf chang1The males in the family are not too fond of Chinese cuisine, or rather, what passes off as Chinese cuisine in most places. I love it; it is extremely kind to vegetarians, for one thing. PF Chang’s is a far cry from the greasy “Manchurian” served at every small eatery in India, however it is mainstream enough to appeal even to less adventurous palates.

We tucked into veg Lo Mein noodles, garlic noodles, Sichuan asparagus (me obviously) and Mongolian Beef, which came with sticky rice. We closed the day with a pot of fragrant mandarin spice tea.

pf chang2Everything was plentiful, delicious and affordable, and I sincerely hope that’s how my year is!