Greg Malouf was down but not out. After the relative misfire of his UAE venture – Clé Dubai, which closed its doors in April last year – the celebrated Australian-Lebanese chef returns to the emirate to head Zahira, a classy Middle Eastern restaurant that opens next week at the H Hotel.
“I’ve spent years working on the evolution of Lebanese cuisine, and while the dishes need to remain faithful to the essence of the region, they can still be presented with creative flair,” he says of his approach.
“With Zahira, I wanted something cool, accessible and affordable – but not street level.”
The 130-seat restaurant will boast a menu filled with his elegant take on Middle Eastern cuisine. Dishes include salmon kibbeh, duck bisteeya, his famous Wagyu baster and seven-vegetable tagine.
As he looks forward to the grand opening, on Monday, Malouf was open and frank about his experiences in the UAE and the challenges facing the local culinary scene.
qIt’s great to have you back in the UAE. Local foodies were worried your experience with Clé Dubai might have scared you off.
aNot at all. I look at Zahira as my second introduction to Dubai. My first was Clé Dubai and that was a monster of a restaurant – and it just wasn’t right, to be honest. I was there for just over a year. I left in January last year and they closed a few months later in April.
What happened? It started with a bang – with celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Chloe Kardashian on opening night.
It was just that Clé was starting to become a nightclub and I don’t do ladies’ nights – I can’t bear that sort of thing. At a certain time of the night, the music went up and the lights went down. People couldn’t see what they were eating, and people who were not really interested in the food started coming. It drove me nuts.
Zahira opens just before Ramadan. Will you be offering iftar meals during the holy month?
There will be a Ramadan menu and it will definitely not be a buffet. It will be swift in that you will come and get some dates, and then the dishes will come to tables very quickly for the mains. I am still working on it, but there will definitely be things such as the ouzi [baked lamb with aromatic rice] and some rice dishes and meats that are slow-cooked.
You have always shown how Arabic food is sophisticated. But do you feel you are alone in your approach, and that Arabic cuisine is often viewed as a more traditional, rustic food?
I still see that. It is viewed as cheap and inexpensive – almost as student food. It’s that way in the West and Arab world, and I really don’t know why. It just seems that Arabic cuisine hasn’t budged. I ask myself what is next for Arabic food because there has got to be something coming up. All the other cuisines are flying and filled with interesting things that are happening, while Arabic cuisine hasn’t even hit a brick wall because it hasn’t moved. In a way, I wish it did hit a brick wall because it would force us to do something.
One of the biggest dining gripes in this country is poor service by waiting staff because of a lack of training. Is that a fair observation?
I am glad you said training is the issue and not the staff – it is the lack of training for them, and management systems is the cause of this. It really bugs me because we need to have management that trains the staff the appropriate way. For me, that is so important. It begins with the manager who is very switched on, right down to the staff who greet people at the door, get people seated at the table and answer all the appropriate questions.
The UAE restaurant scene is often said to be expanding to become one of the most “happening” places in the world. Do you share that view?
Look, the UAE food scene is growing but not rapidly enough. There is the issue of the lack of local produce. We get it delivered from Europe twice a week, and I struggle with that at times as I want to use local produce – and that is expensive.
So you don’t pay too much attention to industry rumours that Dubai might soon have its first Michelin-star restaurant?
We are nowhere near it. For a Michelin star you need local produce and a restaurant with a dedicated staff that would give their right arm to work there. It just doesn’t happen here. Dubai is all about spreadsheets and whether there is enough marble [in the restaurant decor]. It is what it is and you just have to adapt. There are speed bumps, but you get over it and that’s what keeps me going.
• Zahira is at the H Hotel, Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai; open from 6pm to 2am. For details, visit www.h-hotel.com