Dockside indulgence in Abu Dhabi

20140518-224014-81614307.jpgThe sea port on the northern edge of Abu Dhabi is lined with fish sellers, cargo storage facilities, and wooden fishing dhows – perhaps not where you’d expect to find a restaurant with one of the best and widest selections of Emirati food in the UAE’s capital.

But Al Arish, an Emirati seafood restaurant along the docks, is all about unique surprises.

20140518-222303-80583150.jpgThere are few lights along the pier at night, which makes finding Al Arish a bit tricky after dark. But it’s hard to miss the building’s outline of golden string lights and long line of parked cars out front. (Nevermind the restaurant sign for “Al Dhafra” – you’re in the right place.)

Al Arish serves an Emirati food buffet - quite a unique sight to behold in a country where finding “local” cuisine outside of private homes is rare. The all-you-can-eat Emirati specials are delicious and authentic, like fragrant rice sayadieh spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, hariss, savory pumpkin assida, lamb fareed, biryani speckled with chopped almonds and golden raisins, and grilled fish majbous. They also offer lamb fajitas cooked with local spices.

20140518-222303-80583593.jpgAs if that isn’t enough, Al Arish also serves grilled fish a la carte. Just past the entrance, there are three tables covered in mounds of various fresh raw fish and crustaceans sitting on a bed of ice cubes. The seafood is all sold by weight and cooked with a selection of sauces. The hot sauce is one of the best. It is a red salsa made with onions, garlic, lemon juice, fresh tomatoes, a bit of tomato paste, salt, turmeric, and spicy green chilis.  20140518-222322-80602744.jpg

But customers don’t – or at least shouldn’t – come just for the food. A visit to Al Arish is all about the experience.

20140518-222324-80604392.jpgThe dining area – indeed, the entire restaurant - is a quirky mix of styles. It’s part fish grotto, part palace recreation room – think an Arabian version of a tiki hut with Versailles aspirations.

There are huge solid wood tables, surrounded with red-upholstered throne-like armchairs, in the middle of a massive dining room. Rattan walls are adorned with gilt-framed photos, one of which shows the late Sheikh Zayed during a visit to the restaurant in days of old. There are plastic crystal chandeliers in the shape of Chinese junk ships hung along the walls.20140518-222322-80602345.jpg

An algae-encrusted fish tank gurgles along one side of the entrance, across from private dining rooms. Every seat in the massive space is set up before guests arrive; red napkins are rolled into rose shapes on each plate, propped up beside ornate wooden fish sculptures decorated with tiny bits of mirrored glass.

If that’s not enough, there’s also a VIP suite with wood inlay details and large hanging lamps.

20140518-222321-80601943.jpgThe buffet is located along two sides of the banquet room in large flip-top metal warming dishes. There is also a free-standing wooden boat in the middle of the room whose top has been converted into a serving area for salads, breads, and extra plates.

The food served at Al Arish may be Emirati, but the executive sous chef of the past seven years is from Egypt. Tamer Roshdy says he learned to cook Emirati classics after arriving in Abu Dhabi, and that he samples each of the dishes himself before they are set out to be served to ensure that the seasoning is correct and that they meet his standard for flavor and quality. Roshdy also says that he spot checks the dishes daily for freshness, so that only the best is served to customers.

20140518-222323-80603148.jpgAl Arish’s customers are both foreigners and locals. Large dinner parties from cruise ships docked nearby make for compelling people-watching on most nights.

All in all, it is an expensive meal if you choose to sample both the buffet and the fish-by-weight. But you pay for the experience.

And what an experience it is.20140518-222323-80603510.jpg

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Al Arish Restaurant
Address: Mina Zayed Port (near the fish market), Abu Dhabi, UAE
Telephone: +971 2 673 2266
Website: aldhafra.net
Price: $$$
Camels Fire: red_chili_pepperred_chili_pepper

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