“Middle Eastern food has gotten a bit lazy”, said Greg Malouf over a crackling phone line from Beirut.
The Australian chef used to own the well-known Melbourne restaurant MoMo. He moved to Dubai in 2013 because he was eager to explore new markets. But, when I tried calling him, he was visiting his family in Lebanon.
Since his return he has learnt several lessons about preparing Middle Eastern food for local people and is confident that upmarket local cuisine is gaining momentum in the Emirates, partly because there is a lack of quality restaurants specialising in the food of the region.
“If I go to a Lebanese restaurant and order something simple like kibbe, you’re not going to get lamb, it’s most likely frozen mutton.
“And that’s the disappointing part of some of the places in this part of the world, they haven’t moved on or pushed any boundaries.“
His restaurant is located in the International Financial Centre of Dubai. It’s called Clé, the French word for key, but Malouf said he didn’t come up with the name. “I had nothing to do with it, it’s not what I had in mind.”
The restaurant is an all-black, stylish venue with multiple rooms including a lounge and terrace.
The editor at Dubai’s Country Guides Magazine, Eduan Maggo, said Clé’s modern setting contrasts with its rustic meals.
“He tries to cook the dishes his family cooked, and they do get an update in their presentation, but apart from that it’s very homely.
“His family style restaurant is a very Arab approach to eating, and mixing that with your high end almost western concept is quite cool.”
Maggo believes the restaurant set-up works because Emiratis love to go out in bigger groups to share meals.
MoMo was a modern Middle Eastern restaurant in the Melbourne Grand Hyatt on Collins St.
The Clé menu includes an extra hit of spices, unlike MoMo which had to accommodate the wine loving Australian palette.
Malouf said he had to be aware of the deep traditions of the region in order to accommodate them in the new menu.
“Middle Eastern people will always go back to what they know best, home cooking”.
He counts himself lucky to have a natural understanding of the regional palette because he was brought up in a Lebanese household.
The greatest proportion of Clé’s customers are locals, followed by expats and tourists.
“Early in the week it’s mostly expats and later on in the week its locals, which I love to see. It puts me at ease to know that I’m on the right track and going in the right direction.
“Most of my customers in Melbourne were locals and never Middle Eastern, and now it’s swung right around.
“My customers are 70 percent local, followed by Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian.”
Malouf said he picked Dubai for its location and diverse population with a well-travelled palate.
However, he does admit that he had a greater response to his food back home because Australians are always willing to try something different.
“There is an incredible amount of food bloggers in Dubai because Arabs love to eat food and talk about food, and then talk about their next meal.”
Dining at Clé certainly made a strong impression on Country Guides Dubai food critic, Eduan Maggo.
“I remember he served a mayonnaise with pomegranate which I thought was a nice way of blending a traditional fruit with a modern condiment.
“His grandmother’s spinach pies were just amazing, it’s all about the textures, flavours and the different layers which were all really good.”
On the opening night of Clé, 1200 guests arrived including celebrities and a-list guests, something Malouf still isn’t used to.
“It’s just what happens in Dubai and my friends back in Melbourne were laughing at me.
“It diluted our brand, we don’t want to be an elitist restaurant we want to do something good for the region.”