imagine travelling back to the past in simpler times where fishermen sat at tables drinking hot tea after a tiring day. at a corner, bedouin ladies preparing local food. pearl-divers and merchants busied themselves in souks (market), with donkeys carrying oil containers outside while passing by a camel sitting with its herder under the shade. arab merchants stopped to rest; cross-legged in a majlees while the waiter served them machboos dajaj (machboos rice with chicken).
no need time-machine for that.
gorgeous entrance ~ sturdy old-style oak door – and heavy to open too! (the arab dude behind me is just a mannequin ya hihi)
just eat at al-fanar restaurant and cafe, boasted as the first and ONLY place serving *emirati cuisine in the most incredibly charming setting – depicting the ambiance of 1960’s dubai. a time when it was just a small town in the heart of the middle east, along the shore of the arabian gulf. it was the strategic spot for merchants, pearl divers and bedouin people.
*locals of UAE (united arab emirates) are called ‘emirati’ and even the locals admit there is no restaurant selling emirati cuisine as it’s usually serves in people’s homes. realizing the lack of awareness about emirati food among the expats and tourists, the owner decided to open an emirati restaurant – and so al-fanar is born.
here at al-fanar restaurant, you feel like you’re eating at a museum; a museum set to look like an old emirati village. let the pictures show you how wonderful the outside of the restaurant is – so much to see, and to hold, and to take pictures off. my boys had so much fun. it’s good that they don’t really mind kids ‘riding’ the display. a few arab families also had their kids on the donkey and camel and take pictures.
and this is just the outside.
the decor outside is awesome. from left clockwise : my eldest khaleef on the camel, kahfi pulling a donkey, a blue jeep and lots of other items usually found in a typical emirati village; like the final picture showing kahfi watching a ‘bedouin woman’ making cheese – so interesting!
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let’s go inside!
words cannot express how wonderful the decor is on the inside. this part of al-fanar restaurant is made to look like olden days coffee shop. it has this gorgeous nostalgic look, with the crumbling paint-job on the wall, the rusty look of the door hinges and the oil lamp – complete with an old bicycle resting by a wall.
credit : al-fanar facebook page
this is also where the ‘souk’ is – where patrons can buy local items usually found at emirati houses, like metal containers, little hand-woven baskets, and brushes made from leaves – which mysteriously looked like the long-lost brother of our malay penyapu lidi!
the rest of al-fanar restaurant is even more mesmerizing. every single corner and walls is a quite a sight with kerosene lamp hanging above. all around the walls you can also see classic black and white pictures depicting old dubai, scenes from life in dubai around the 1960's.
everything is so nostalgic!
the courtyard (credit : al-fanar facebook page)
there are so many places you can choose to eat at. outside you can choose to sit cross-legged in the tent, or choose a tent with tables and chairs. you can sit outside beside the donkey or with the view of the man-made canal.
inside, you can sit at the table at the ‘souq’ or go to the courtyard, where we sat. you can choose to sit by one of the ‘booth seats’ tucked in a few corners for privacy, or just in the middle under the ‘blue sky’ next to a ‘tall bushy tree’.
yes, the ceiling is painted to look like a clear blue sky, while they ‘plant’ a tree (yes, a tree!) smack in the heart of al-fanar restaurant! lovely! you really feel like eating outdoor at an arabian courtyard.
we sat at the ‘courtyard’. it’s so interesting dining amongst the arabs, surrounded by the ambiance of an arab house. just lovely.
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so, how’s the food?
the menu at al-fanar restaurant claims to offer ‘authentic emirati cuisine’. interestingly enough, i don’t see the usual street-food that i’ve had while in dubai like my favorite mandi rice, or shawarma, or even hummus – which i thought is a must-have at an arab dining table. turns out that these other food may be ARAB in origin, but not emirati.
this is exactly what the owner of al-fanar restaurant is trying to change : the perception of expats and tourist about what IS the local emirati food? there are more briyani dishes and grilled seafood in the main course, i would say. the selection of desserts is most commendable, and i guarantee you can’t decide right away which to try first.
the menu is easy to browse – it’s got pictures which makes it easy to imagine the dish you’re gonna enjoy without relying on the description alone. the names are in arabic, but the description is in english. to view full menu, click here.
we tried this humble little dish called ‘koftat samak’. looks like our pergedil, but it's actually fish – deep fried crumbled fish. it doesn’t look much, but it’s deliciously crispy on the outside, soft on the inside.
too bad blur photo – but this fish dish was the best! 'samak al-tanoor' is the name of the dish, served with steamed white rice, softest i’ve ever eaten – ntah beras apa diorang guna! the fish is simply grilled, leaving the flesh soft and juicy with rich taste of the marinade.
highly recommended! can’t wait to bring my abah here, he would love this grilled fish!
for the main dish, we ordered 'machboos laham' – it looks like meat mandi but sad to say, quite disappointing. the rice was ok but the meat is just too dry. i think with all the yemeni's mandi rice and iranian rice, rich-flavoured indian and pakistani briyani we’ve tried in dubai, emirati main rice dish is just a mediocre dish…sorry, sheikh!
we realized that we didn’t have anything with gravy but we didn’t want any curry (since we want to try something new) so we went for 'nagahr nashef' which is squid cooked in tomato sauce. this dish is quite so-so, tasty enough for me, but those who want more spice in a dish would probably not like it. it’s very mild, and for some reason, i didn’t taste the squid. was it really squid, ke potato?
now, i would suggest you to simply go to al-fanar JUST for their selection of local emirati sweets and desserts. just pick a table, sit back, relax and order one sweet dish.
this one that we tried was so delicious that we had to order another plate. this yummylicious dessert is called 'leqaimat' – crispy fried dough ball coated in sweet date syrup – sedap sangat! my boys loved it! served hot and fresh with a generous pour of the sweet date syrup, and a sprinkle of sesame seed.
there are a few others that i would love to try next; like the emirati doughnuts and flat bread served with date syrup and cream cheese – oh, the thought of it! check out the list of al-fanar desserts here.
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my malaysian readers would be interested to find out that the waiters' outfit looks like our baju melayu, siap pakai kopiah ngan kain pelikat. i was so delightfully shocked when i first saw them! but actually they wore the green kandoora, and the kain sarong on the outside like an apron. we had to take picture with one!
while the men’s outfit looked like our lelaki melayu, the waitresses wear different colored kaftan.
when we came right at noon, the place was just starting to get packed. by the time we were waiting for our orders, more and more people came until there was a waiting line at the seating area by the cashier. however, the waiters were helpful in suggesting dishes to us, and promptly served our food.
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in every nook and corner you can see an item, along with its description – just like in a museum kan? so interesting!
another interesting finding – these plates said to be ‘dishes traditionally used in most of the houses in UAE’ are amazingly similar to the ones used in my grandma’s house in teluk intan! macam pinggan mangkok kenduri opah aku kat teluk anson je! kan kan kan…
al-fanar restaurant and cafe @ dubai festival city
al-fanar restaurant and cafe is in dubai festival city, by the man-made canal by the marina.
personally i would say that it was an enriching experience eating at this beautiful al-fanar restaurant as it was like eating in a museum, it was like eating in another moment in time in the olden days, AND because it was my first time eating local emirati food.
all these while i’ve eaten yemeni’s mandi rice countless times, lebanese food, and iranian dishes, but never local emirati food.
overall, i thoroughly enjoyed my lunch here at al-fanar – since i tried the oh-so-soft steamed rice with the deliciously juicy grilled fish and crispy fish koftat. HOWEVER, i must say i would not go there as soon, because it’s quite pricy (to me, as i prefer cheaper but equally delicious yemeni’s mandi rice and pakistani briyani elsewhere!) but i highly recommend that you go and try eating there even if it’s just that one time.
this is the place where you can say ‘enjoy your food’, ‘enjoy the view’, ‘enjoy the display’ and ‘hope you had learned something about emirati food and culture’!
click here for a very interesting article on al-fanar restaurant and the emirati food from gulfnews, along with a video of the restaurant.