Al Fanar is leading the way locally as the Emirati restaurant at which to dine. And you’ve opened two international outlets. Where and how did your story begin?
We started in 2011 and we decided to open because we saw that there was no Emirati restaurant that offered casual dining in the local market. Initially, we wanted to target all the tourists visiting the UAE and introduce them to our culture and cuisine, because it wasn’t well known, or well defined. There was definitely confusion surrounding our food. People thought hummus and mandi were traditional here – I mean these dishes are from Lebanon and Yemen – and are not Emirati at all.
When we opened our doors, we were surprised to find that 99 per cent of our customers were actually local. Which was odd, but we were very happy, too. I guess Italians go out for Italian food, right? We now have 8 outlets in the UAE and venues in Riyadh and London. We’re proud to have opened the first Emirati restaurants internationally.
For those who have not visited one of your restaurants, please explain your overall concept.
We focus on traditional, home-cooked, Emirati recipes. All our restaurants, except our venue in Al Barsha, are designed to look like a typical local home from the 1960s – which gives us the chance to share our country’s history.
Where do all the recipes come from? Do you do any of the cooking?
No! LOL! My dad and I research; it’s my mother who does all the cooking and each dish is perfected at home. We test different recipes a lot to see what is tasty or appropriate for
Talk to us about the fit-out and concept of your venue in Al Barsha?
Al Fanar Seafood Market in Al Barsha is themed differently to all our other venues. We drew our inspiration from Jazirat Al Hamra – a former tidal island in Ras Al Khaimah. It used to be the home of pearl divers and fishermen. It’s long been a deserted area and all that remains are ruins of the fishing village.
The fishermen used material from the sea and the mountains surrounding them to build their homes, which were essentially made out of red clay, stucco, coral stones and clamshell stones.
This style of architecture and any traditional elements from the area are all reflected in our restaurant. We visited the area many times, taking photos of everything that we wanted to implement in our designs. There’s a photo gallery in the Al Barsha venue showcasing highlights from our visits.
How does the menu differ at the outlet?
Just like our Seafood Market in Al Seef set on Dubai Creek, the focus at the Al Barsha venue is on fish and seafood. However, we want to branch out from only Emirati style dishes, so we’ve introduced options such as stews cooked in different styles, salmon cooked in lemon and butter, a range of appetisers and chilled seafood options, too. We also have a big seafood display, and guests can choose their own fish and cooking style.
Where do you source your fish and seafood?
We have ‘a guy’. He heads to the fish market every morning to pick whatever looks the best, then we distribute it fresh to all our restaurants from our central kitchen. We don’t go through any suppliers; we do everything ourselves.
Were you involved in the food industry before opening Al Fanar?
Our family’s core business is building theme parks – we’ve worked on many big projects such as Warner Bros. World™ Abu Dhabi. With Al Fanar, we’ve been able to combine two of our passions: food and theming. We’ve built all our outlets.
Do you think Emirati cuisine is simple and easy enough for home cooks to try?
It’s really not that difficult and it probably just depends which items you choose to cook. Breakfasts and desserts are easy. Some mains could be slightly difficult.
Is it similar to any other cuisine?
I’d say it’s closest to Indian cuisine. But Emirati dishes use fewer spices and tastes less spicy. It’s also not as oily. Our food has many influences though, all because of the trade routes from the past.
What is your hope for Emirati cuisine?
Our goal is to share our cuisine with the world. That’s why we opened abroad – especially in the UK. We wanted to test the market and see if foreigners would accept our food. The response has been really positive which is encouraging.
Being the only Emirati restaurant to have set up internationally is challenging – but cuisines from other Arab cultures have made it so why can’t we? Our food is neutral, not extreme and friendly.