Olivia Cuthbert22 Apr 2015 AT 02:15 PM

Mezlai

One of the few places in the capital serving authentic Emirati cuisine
Olivia Cuthbert22 Apr 2015 AT 02:15 PM
Mezlai
© ITP
Mezlai
Lamb Shoulder Medfoun
© ITP
Lamb Shoulder Medfoun

This stately establishment, located in Emirates Palace hotel, bears the proud title of being the first dedicated Emirati restaurant to open in Abu Dhabi. There’s a surprising shortage of authentic local cuisine available in the capital – which we’ve written about here – and for a long time the only way to try it was to be invited to an Emirati household.

As it’s in the Emirates Palace, the prices might be beyond many diners, but for those willing to splash out, the reward is food that is as interesting as it is delicious – underscoring the influences of the Arabian Gulf, Persia, the Indian subcontinent and the wider Arab world.

Chicken margoga is as Emirati as it gets, cooked with tomato sauce, onions and local spices in the special dough that gives the dish its name. At least one portion of this needs to be ordered before you can say you’ve eaten local food. Similarly heart-warming is the makbous, a tomato sauce with local spices, dried lemon and rice that can be enjoyed with chicken, lamb or fish.

Then there’s the national staple, Hariz, served here with veal and made by boiling the meat with barley and a fragrant cocktail of spices over a low heat until the meat all but dissolves to leave a smooth and creamy soup – or, as they say on the menu, rather like porridge. Another typical UAE dish is hammour mafrook, in which the fish is mashed and mixed with fresh cream then served hot with fire-baked bread on the side. It’s a long way from mezze and grilled meats.

Considering the climate, it’s quite surprising how heavy Emirati cuisine can be, but there are a number of lighter options on the menu. A series of fire-grilled seafood dishes, including the succulent shari fish cooked with herbs or the whole-grilled lobster are solid choices, but the most interesting creation is the grilled hammour fillet mixed with nuts, bread crumbs and rose water – the aromas of which are instantly evocative of the region.

Dessert is big in this part of the world and Mezlai goes to town on sweet treats to finish off the meal. Try the shebab – fluffy pancakes served with saffron, cinnamon cream cheese and date honey or bethitha, a creamy date pastry topped with nuts. It’s an old recipe that used to provide early pearl divers with a much-needed energy boost on their long dives.

The best option, however, is the Mezlai Grand Dessert as this offers an assortment of the different local puddings on the menu and gives diners a chance to try a little of each. Just make sure you’ve saved enough room from the mains.

The food here won’t be to everyone’s taste – and the prices may mean it’s a taste that won’t easily be acquired. But Mezlai is about understanding where you are as much as what you’re eating, and for that it continues to play an important role in the capital’s dining scene.  

Three dishes to try:

Veal hariz
This is filed under “must” on anyone’s first visit to Mezlai. The local specialty is a thick, green-grey porridge that is served with ghee. You may not love it but you have to try it

Hammour makbous
Another slow-cooked dish of fish fillet with lime, onion, potato and tomatoes that is served with rice and saffron. Very hearty.

Lamb madfoun
This is lamb that is wrapped in banana leaves and then slow-cooked. Traditionally, it wuld be cooked in a hole in the ground but Mezlai have recreated an oven for the same end.

Mezlai
Where: Al Ras Al Akhdar - Abu Dhabi - AE

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