Isn’t it funny that in the Dubai Mall, a place that has more over-optimistically self-styled ‘gourmet’ food joints than deepest darkest East London, the one restaurant that can actually pull it off is kept on the down-low, and is basically situated in a supermarket?
I have eschewed Eataly for a long time. The silly name alone put me off. Walking past it — as we often do, as it’s located in a major thoroughfare in the busy basement level of the mall — it seems at a glance through the windows, that it’s a café. Peer in and you’ll see that there’s a homewares store in there too, selling everything you might need to Sicily-up your kitchen, from pasta rollers to novelty oversized pepper mills (good heavens they’re expensive). So it came as a surprise to me when one day, as we wandered the mall, hungry and heading to Five Guys, The European turned and said;
“You know, I’ve heard there’s a good Italian restaurant in Eataly”
This is code for “I’m not going to Five Guys again you fat unimaginative bastard, take me to Eataly”. So off we went.
Eataly is like an Italian IKEA, for gourmands. It’s actually a reasonably-sized chain of marketplace-style stores, founded in 2004 and with locations in every far-flung corner of the world from the Americas to Asia (and Italy of course). In the one in Dubai Mall, beyond the café, that homewares section is an Aladdin’s cave of everything that you want, but don’t necessarily need, and can’t necessarily afford, for your kitchen. Most of the cavernous, warehouse-like space is devoted to authentic Italian ingredients, ranging from cans of Lavazza and Illy coffee, to monolithic wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The only thing lacking is a pork license, so no salami or prosciutto and the like – a complaint that could be extended to the food menu in the restaurant too.
Speaking of which, this restaurant is unceremoniously plonked in a corner of this very expensive supermarket, next to a counter selling duck bresaola and those heavenly wheels of cheese. An open kitchen is nestled in the corner. If you don’t go into Eataly, you really could blink and miss it, even though it’s not exactly the smallest eatery ever (I estimate there are about seventy or so covers in there). As we walked in, a waitress appeared from behind a shelf full of jars of proper tomato sauces and seated us at an arrangement of trendy clear plastic chairs and a modern wooden table. Sliced bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar is given to you as you look through the menu.
Eataly offers a pretty standard menu (pasta, pizza, main course sections etc.) but lacks some offerings which, at first, made me very sad indeed. No pork, as mentioned (almost a sin for an Italian restaurant), no alcohol license (standard in Dubai Mall) and no Coca-Cola or Pepsi (the last one made me really wonder what we’d let ourselves into), so you’re guided onto juices, mocktails and those delicious Italian soft drinks of Aranciata and Limonata. I grew up working at a British chain of Italian restaurants called Strada, where Aranciata provided me with the sugar high needed to deal with the dreadful customers who came into the place, so having to drink this again was a little bit of welcome nostalgia, if not exactly what I would choose with a lovely bowl of pasta.
And the pasta is lovely, believe me. There was a black truffle promotion running when we visited, so we shared a black truffle and Parmesan linguine and a black truffle risotto. Us being creatures of expensive and fatty habits, we shared a portion of burrata to begin with.
The food here is so good, so fresh and flavourful I can easily compare it to Armani / Ristorante, where you can eat just as well but for three times the price. The pasta is fresh, cooked perfectly (after ordering, our waitress confirmed to us three times that it will be cooked al dente, asking if that’s O.K., as it will be nicer). The risotto was incredible — easily the best I’ve had in terms of the cook of the rice — and HEAVENS the European agreed! High praise indeed. The burrata was excellent too — if a little too chilled — and the freshness of the accompaniments like the plum tomatoes was mind blowing. You know, I reckon Eataly might have the edge over Armani as the former is unadulterated, simple cooking, free from the frills of fine dining. Here, it’s all about the ingredients. If you come to Eataly for pizza then again, you’re in safe hands as they’re stone-baked, crispy and there are plenty to choose from (a simple bresaola, rocket and parmesan one is my favourite).
We had found that large bowls of rich, truffly carbs AND burrata was a little too much for a light lunch, so we paid up. Though it’s cheap in comparison to Armani, that doesn’t say much and Eataly does now have the distinction of being the most expensive non-alcoholic meal I have ever had. You get what you pay for though, the food is that special. As we left, lunch was in full swing, the restaurant full of a mix of locals, tourists, families and couples, many of them Italian (I’ve since heard that Eataly is the preferred feeding grounds of the Italian expat community). We waddled back out past all the lovely expensive kitchenware, pretty, arty espresso cups and hundred-dollar olive oils. Good job they don’t serve alcohol here else I’d definitely be drunk-buying a pasta roller.
One starter to share, two courses (mid-priced for the menu) and a couple of drinks came to about five hundred Dirhams.
Eataly is located in the basement (B1) of Dubai Mall.
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Originally published 1st March 2017