Qbara – “Nouvelle” Middle Eastern Cuisine or “Arabesque” Western Fine Dining?

A thing of beauty!
Like something from outer space!

I generally tend to plan my trips to restaurants around dessert, and coming across the chocolate “mille-feuille” on one local instagram account was all that was needed to convince me to go to Qbara.

I realize that this photo may not be to everyone's taste, but if chocolate is your thing, then sweet stuff here delivers the goods!
I realize that this photo may not be to everyone’s taste, but if chocolate is your thing, then sweet stuff here delivers the goods!

Sadly, a check of Qbara’s menu reveals that this dessert is no longer being served at the restaurant, which is a little surprising given that it is one of their best, and certainly by far my favourite. Ironically, it is also the least Eastern of the desserts on offer. It is simply thin layers of dark chocolate sandwiching a chocolate mousse that all stand on a bed of caramel sauce. There’s a little barberry jelly and some sesame croquant for finishing touches. The sesame and barberries are about the only Eastern touches in this dessert, and this is by no means a criticism. As an aside, I don’t understand why restaurants do this – I dined at one local and now-defunct Japanese restaurant where the main chocolate dessert was no longer on offer when I went there (you could tell from the description that it was their best one, and it also happened to be their best-seller), and when I asked the waitress why this was the case, she said that it was not profitable at that price point. Does it not make more sense to raise its price and / or cancel some of the weaker options (along with the unnecessary costs of inventory required to maintain them on the menu)? The restaurant’s taste in “art” on the other hand was right up my street…

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Although I am not absolutely sure, I believe the artist to be “Mari Kim” – I found her name on another print in the same restaurant

Back to Qbara, and this next dessert, the baklava smash, is so simple (and so equally good) that one wonders why Arab restaurants and pastry chefs have not managed to find ways to work chocolate (dark or otherwise) into their menus.

Smashing!!!
Simply smashing!!! (Perhaps I exaggerate, but this was pretty good)

The bean-to-bar revolution is possibly one of the most exciting things to have happened within the sphere of patisserie and dessert in the past 30 years, because it has resulted in dark (and other) chocolate of a far greater quality and range than that which was previously available, as well as new flavours and new possibilities, and yet Arab restaurants mostly tend to disregard this wave of change. Instead we continue to see kunafeh, atayef, baklawah, om ali, muhallabieh, ashtah (just cream albeit with a drizzle of honey and some nuts for good measure!!!), and even dare I say, the not so very Arab creme caramel on our menus. Restaurateurs and consumers will point the finger of blame at one another, but irrespective of whose fault it is, is it not high time for change?

And now for what, if I’m not mistaken, is Qbara’s most instagramed dessert (I don’t have stats on this, but she’s been around) – I’ll admit I have no recollection what this tastes like, as it’s been some 14 months since I last had it (she’s a yoghurt panacotta with sumac, honey, nuts and pashmak), but what can one say about Mizz Monroe here other than…

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!!!
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes!!!
It’s fascinating how much she’s been fetishised – she’s the ultimate glamour puss! Love these prints that I saw at RAW Coffee Company in Al Quoz (not just a roastery and cafe, but also a treasure trove of information on all things coffee).

Every time I take a shot of one of these vixens (I can’t help but refer to pastries and desserts in the feminine), I feel like a budding fashion photographer…

Hate to be the one to break it to ya, toots, but absolutely all chocolate melts for me!
Hate to be the one to break it to ya, toots, but absolutely all chocolate melts for me!

And up until recently, I was not aware that the local branch of Singapore’s Candylicious (at which the photo you see above was taken) is operated and owned (I think) by Alabbar Enterprises, the “parent company” that also operates local branches of Angelina, Social House, Markette, Yogurtland, Hershey’s Chocolate World Dubai, Spun, and Garrett Popcorn Shops which all happen to be housed under one roof in none other than The Dubai Mall. No other mall in Dubai boasts as many patisseries, bakeries, and chocolatiers as this one (although Mall of the Emirates is probably a close second) – it is like a wonderland of sugar and confection, and so I feel a slight giddiness every time I step into it…

With heartbreaking displays such as this one, can you blame me???
With heartbreaking displays such as this one, can you blame me???

Anyhow, as I ways saying, there’s lots to like at Qbara…

This spin on kunafa / or kataifi (I'm not sure which but was told, the former) came highly recommended and did not disappoint
This spin on kunafa topped with a yoghurt-pistachio ice-cream came highly recommended and did not disappoint
And this date and walnut cake with orange tamarind sobet and date beignets had a touch of the exotic about it
And this date and walnut cake with orange tamarind sorbet and date beignets has a touch of the exotic about it
A taste of paradise
The chef’s feminine touch is obvious in many of the creations, especially the ice-creams and sorbets that come adorned in all manner of flowers: this ‘Polynesian’ damsel belongs in a tiki bar / restaurant – it’s a shame there’s no beach in sight…

And then there is what’s not to like here…

Actually, the problem with this one may be more at my end since I can't stand rose water (I'd rather a vanilla pastry cream any day). Since this is supposed to be a bastillah, it would be nice to see it reworked as a baked (and enclosed) pastry as per the original
Actually, the problem with this one may be more at my end since I can’t stand rose water (I’d rather a vanilla pastry cream any day). Since this is supposed to be a bastillah, it would be nice to see it reworked as a baked (and enclosed) pastry as per the original

The dessert menu at Qbara is lengthy, and I ate it in its entirety upon my first visit – it was a bumpy ride with some desserts faring way better than others. I do have more photos, but they’re poorly lit (did I tell you how vain I can be), and my memory of many of those dishes has evaporated, so I guess you’ll have to just go down there (if you already haven’t) and check them out for yourselves. Qbara’s dessert menu is experimental – by attempting to marry Eastern flavours with Western technique (and vice versa?), it has ventured into territory that few other restaurants / chefs have braved before (see ‘Arabian Dreams‘ by chef Aaron Maree, a book I have yet to read). And so, with the pastry chef’s bold and adventurous spirit, can we expect her to continue to excite and delight our palates into the future?

jambar

All this talk of dessert is starting to make me hungry, so perhaps it’s time to change the subject and go back to the “light” fixture that you saw at the top of this page. Qbara’s interiors were designed by Studio Glitt of Japan (the same design house behind Zuma at the DIFC) and they can only be described as mesmerizing…

q13

q14.2

And the light fixture, Qbara’s centrepiece, which may have been flown in from the outer reaches of the Milky Way, is unreal…

It's
Is this, ahem, for sale Qbara?

It’s not actually a light, but 658 baubles made from glass blown by mouth in Poland that are lit from above to incredible effect. If the conversation at your table is dull, you can either marvel at the “light”, or alternatively view the projected display on the wall. And it’s not just Qbara’s interiors that amaze, but even the surrounding neighbourhood is quite the spectacle with monuments that look like they have been renovated and then flown in from Luxor. Check out this happy camper…

q16

Or how about big boss here…

q17

I then take several steps back, take the shot, and voila! – my readers suddenly realize that, in Dubai (and maybe Vegas), this is simply just another day at the mall…

Ho, hum...
Ho, hum…

By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with the title of this article. The reason I haven’t tackled the question of whether or not Qbara has managed to rewrite (or take it forward – call it what you may) Middle Eastern cuisine is because I cannot answer it. I have only dined there twice, and based on those 2 experiences, I would say that the answer may very well lie somewhere in the middle of the 2 extremes presented in the title. I have since seen so many enticing new dishes on Qbara’s instagram page among various others, and so feel uncomfortable making any bold statements until I have tried more of its food. I once told a pastry chef and one of his customers (this was at a restaurant in Dubai that encourages interaction between the pastry chef and his diners) that you needed to go to a restaurant many times before you were able to judge its food and they both simultaneously emitted a few quick yelps of the kind of jeering, derisive laughter that is precision-engineered to make one feel like a blithering idiot (ouch!). Putting it more delicately, I think what they meant to say was that you get one chance. In any case, one local publication has already made up its mind and decided that a “renaissance” is under way in Middle Eastern cuisine. I’m not so sure – an experimental approach by a handful of chefs is one thing, but “renaissance” is something else entirely. I am neither a chef nor an authority on food, but I grew up eating the cuisine of a Middle-Eastern-cookery-book writer; I would like to know what credentials these journalists hold in order that they may feel confident in uttering such hyperbole.

Anyone know how to unleash a mummy's curse? Perhaps this will give Miss Hell Hath No Fury Like a Mummy Scorned a much needed jolt from her slumber!
Tut-tut!!!

In any case, renaissance or not, Qbara is a welcome breath of fresh air – its experimental menu is a brave step in the right direction – so here’s to hoping that it ignites a much welcome trend.

The sky's the limit? I hear that plans are afoot to take Qbara to the rest of the planet!
The sky’s the limit? I have read that plans are afoot to take Qbara to the rest of the globe!

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