In a land in love with luxury food imports, Dubai's casual fine-dining restaurant Boca is going against the flow and opening up a conversation around locally-sourced food, starting with its new spring menu, 'Abundance in the Desert'. It's a tasting menu that pays ode to the desert's riches rather than its aridness, as they say, "we live in abundance; we just have to look a bit closer and work slightly harder".
Opened in Dubai in 2014, the homegrown modern-Spanish tapas-influenced eatery might be sandwiched between big international fine-dining players in the shiny financial district, but it has found a voice of its own. Offering informal affordable all-day dining to returning local professionals, it's ready to have a dialogue. Having weathered the storm of the coronavirus pandemic, it's team is back, its doors are open and it's ready to strive for a sustainable future as well as a sustainably sourced menu.
According to Emirates-born and bred Omar Shihab, Boca's joint owner and general manager, the team are not only pushing against the tide of change, but they also want to make waves by making a platform for the desert, and the surrounding 1000 miles of coastline, that make Dubai so unique. “We’re trying to take a step backwards, and say wait, what really is available here," he says.
In a country that imports 80% of its food products they've had to work a little harder travelling, experimenting and sharing ideas with farmers, producers, botanists and scientists from the ICBA (International Center for Bio-saline Agriculture) to explore what the desert can offer, but the wheels are in motion. The moment also lands at a time when the government is investing in new technology, hydroponic agriculture, vertical, organic and traditional farms. “We started to align ourselves with that strategy of the country to try to see what can be done here in the desert in a modern way,” Shihab explains. “We’re 10 to 15 years behind. These are normal conversations that are happening everywhere around the world, in Asia and Europe.”
But with such a thorough approach, the team and head chef Matthijs Stinnissen, from Jason Atherton’s Marina Social and Tom Aikens' Pots, Pans & Boards in Dubai, has managed to create a new menu for spring, punctuated with surprising local produce, including native desert plants from the UAE, dry-aged beetroot, and sustainable Arabian Gulf fish varieties and Fujairah’s Dibba Bay oysters.
The colourful salad dish, ‘Spring in the Desert,’ has become a talking point since it was first presented to guests on the tasting menu. Composed of four types of native desert plants from UAE, including fresh khobez, homaid, seedaf (a thorny slightly salty shrub), and pickled khansour, together with five-day-aged local beetroot, the flavour profiles range from the extremely bitter to the slightly salty. Reactions have been surprising, Shihab explains: "When we speak to Emiratis, or people who grew up here, a lot of them already have that connection and have a similar story about going to the desert with families after it rains and picking these plants. They couldn’t believe you can find it in a fine-dining environment." Their newfound bounty of edible desert herbs is just as happy working alongside rosemary in their 12-hour braised lamb dish, or in a vinaigrette for Shihab's favourite Dibba Bay Oysters dish.
Outside the restaurant, a carefully researched ‘desert garden’ features eight edible native desert plants inspired by the ‘Desert is a Forest’ installation at the Jameel Arts Centre in Jaddaf, intriguing guests as they arrive and offering future possibilities. The next challenge is sourcing sufficient quantities of edible herbs to ensure a sustainable future on the menu.
When it comes to fish, the chef visits the market with cash in hand - an uncommon sight in Dubai given that many places have credit lines in place with official suppliers - to look for tasty little-valued fish. Underrated sardines are popular at Boca, as is the kingfish found in abundance in the Gulf, known locally as Kan’ad, and features in their Emirati Kingfish Crudo dish, which has become another one of the restaurant's success stories.
Hammour is another commonly found type of grouper "which suffers under a misconception among locals," Shabab explains. It's believed that the smaller they are, the tastier they are. Hammour can actually grow up to 20 years old in nature, but now the average age is only 8 in the Gulf, Shihab says, explaining why they now choose sustainably farmed hammour over wild.
The fresh oysters are sourced from Dibba Bay Oysters, the first farm in the Middle East growing gourmet oysters locally for a home market. "I’d call this guy a national hero, he’s a guy who really did something that makes absolute sense, that is 100 per cent local and clean, it’s great,” he says. "The oysters are so good, he's now exporting out of the country to Russia."
Meat still presents a sourcing challenge. Although meat represents less than 15% of the menu, homegrown producers are limited and red meat still has to be flown in. A quail farm is a possible supplier for the future once they explore its sustainability credentials, and they have, as of yet, to explore camel meat.
Traditional black limes are also a proud feature on the menu, in a nod to the past, in a sabayon featured in the vanilla rice pudding. "Dubai was once an important trade hub on the spice route and the only access to citrus was dried," Shihab explains. "Black lime has historically been used a lot in traditional cooking in rice and stews."
Shihab, an economist by trade, uses his head for figures to reduce waste at the back end of service with a nominated waste officer monitoring the weekly waste produced. In the bar, they now make syrups and dehydrate garnishes from leftover oranges lemons and cucumbers. “I’m a huge fan of the Amass team and chef Orlando, these guys are my heroes in what they can produce from waste for a super fine-dining restaurant to have a food cost of 17% that’s unheard of, obviously serving super-delicious, stunning food with crazy ideas. It’s very inspiring," he says of the Copenhagen restaurant.
Looking to the future, Shihab is dreaming of a world that knows all about the unique food of the desert environment. “We’re trying to say that we have stuff that we can call our own. We have people who call this place home, we have talent. We have an abundance. A huge Gulf line. We just have to look at it differently and present it.” In an ideal world he wants the industry to start looking inwards, and one day to be able to say to the world: 'Hey, we might live in the desert, but we can still grow stuff here.'
Let's hope he's right.
Take a look at the stunning dishes from Boca's new 'abundance in the desert' menu in the gallery below.