Is it an art studio? Is it a restaurant? Is it a shop? We visit Dubai newcomer Cabin to find out
There’s been something of a sea change in Dubai over the past year or two, a move away from big budget hotel restaurants, complete with chandeliers and gold lifts, towards smaller, more intimate independent spaces that could, kindly or disparagingly depending on your point of view, be described as having hipster appeal.
And there’s little doubt that Cabin fits that remit. Owned and operated by British artist Jonathan Gent together with his partner, the award-winning Emirati design entrepreneur Rami Farook, Cabin is a restaurant first and foremost, but also Jonathan’s working studio and gallery space, with a small shop selling items of his work alongside hand-poured candles, locally created fashion and coffee table books. There’s a cute garden space too, an old record player spinning whatever vinyl is displayed on the wall that day, and a doodle wall kids will love to graffiti. So far, so hip.
But where Cabin differs from the pack is that it also has a serious dose of soul. It impresses, but it does so in a seemingly effortless way. Rather than too cool for school it feels, whisper it, friendly. “I really didn’t want it to be hipster,” Johnny explains. “I just want to serve classic coffee with a cap on the avocado dishes.”
Nearly 10,000 people applied for the ten positions in the kitchen and front of house, and everyone selected to work here appears to genuinely love their job. The kitchen staff joke and sing across the pass, and everyone we encounter has a story to tell. The atmosphere is jovial, relaxed and very fun.
The menu has been created by chef Aaron Jones, brought onboard from Singapore’s lauded Saint Pierre, though there is no Michelin-seeking fussiness here. A winter menu main of seared cod with parsnip purée, puy lentils and wild mushrooms is as fancy as the descriptions get, and the dish itself is homely, delicious and perfectly cooked to boot. Prawn tacos, meanwhile, do feature avocado, but alongside fresh tomatoes and cabbage, pickled onions, lime and juicy, hefty grilled prawns. A crowd-pleasing menu if ever we saw one, there are also upmarket takes on a chicken Caesar salad and a cheese toastie, while breakfast runs the gamut from acai bowls and Benedict with bresaola to French toast and granola.
It’s all done with some serious attention to detail too – the tacos are bursting with micro-leaves from local Badia Farm, while an impeccable chocolate mouse dessert comes with a topping of a new type of mint the same farm is trying out – a hybrid designed to taste like chocolate.
The way children are welcomed here should also be noted. From a sketchbook drawing competition to the graffiti wall, this is a place where kids genuinely seem to be as welcome as adults, even if the latter are generally more amenable to sitting still (and not scratching the vinyl – sorry, Cabin!). Children have their own menu, which staff will happily play with to suit anyone being picky (our mash-hating youngster requested his sausages with carrots and peas, and amazingly, got exactly that), and the whole vibe is more akin to a family home than a restaurant. A very cool family home, we grant you. But a home nonetheless.
15 Maisan Towers, Al Barsha South, Sun to Thur 8am to 5pm, Fri and Sat 9am to 6pm. Taxi: Beside Foremarke School. cabindubai.com
DOING SOME GOOD
Jonathan Gent on creating Cabin
Do you see Cabin more as a restaurant or as an art space?
I see it as a restaurant – which for me means a place of sanctuary. All of my favourite restaurants have felt like that. Great food is a must, but what you can’t plan or design is that special thing that happens – chemistry or luck plays the biggest part. The way natural light hits a part of the restaurant at a certain time of the day, the sound of the music system from an open door, the way a member of staff moves in the space. Luck plays its part, always.
How did you go about creating the menu?
It was about asking ‘what do I want to eat? What dishes are timeless and classic?’ Trends worry me. I like a dish that’s been tested thousands of times over tens of years. Saying this, we are also an art studio so our menu is playful. Like all artists – rip, copy, steal, then make it your own.
How important has local, sustainable sourcing been to you?
It’s been very difficult and a constant worry. Fish here in UAE is fantastic and we are working towards a heavier fish menu. There is daily conversation between me and the head chef about sustainability, environmental issues and the quality of our produce. The importance of the future of farming in the UAE is paramount and there are amazing things happening here. Just yesterday I was in Badia Farms in Al Quoz, an unbelievable micro herb farm, and the quality of sustainable product there just blew me away.
Will you be using the space to support the local art community?
Absolutely. My partner Rami Farook is a well known supporter of the arts and in our restaurant now we are showcasing or collaborating with at least three local artists – a designer, a jeweller and a multidisciplinary artist. We aren’t about pushing one thing – great stuff is great stuff, whether it’s from Bur Dubai or Brooklyn. I don’t like terms like ‘western art’ or ‘Middle Eastern art’. The quicker we get away from that, the better.