ドバイ巻き and an Overview of Dubai’s Japanese Restaurants

Sushi outside Japan has take on a number of different mutations. From the California Roll developed in Los Angeles in 1963, a number of “special rolls” have become popular in the Japanese restaurants of the world. Some are just ordinarily special, like the Dragon Roll (California Roll plus unagi eel), to the exciting Bronco Roll (California roll with salmon and tuna on top) and the amusing Disco Shrimp Roll (California roll with spicy sauce and baked shrimp on top).

Not surprisingly, an innovative Japanese restaurant in Dubai called 弁当屋 (Bentoya) has come up with the “Dubai Roll” — tuna, salmon and cucumber (with “spicy sauce” added to give it some bite).

Sorry for the poor resolution and lighting — this photo was taken with my phone.

Why the contents of tuna, salmon and cucumber? The joke among my Japanese colleagues at the restaurant was that, since Dubai is constantly pushing to be number 1 at everything, the Dubai Roll has to have all the top sushi ingredients in one bite.

As many readers may know, once you’re hanging out with Japanese overseas, there’s an overwhelming trend to going to Japanese restaurants, and I’ve now been to them all in my 10 weeks in Dubai. Bentoya is the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city, but it’s pretty disappointing cuisine. The other notable Japanese restaurants are:

* 喜作 Kisaku: Kisaku is the most authentic Japanese restaurant outside Japan you could conceive. It was founded and is managed by Chitoshi Takahashi, a Japanese chef who started in the Middle East twenty years ago working in-house for the Iran branch of a major trading company, and who is such a fixture of Japanese cuisine in the Middle East that he was recently featured as the first person profiled in the book 中東のクールジャパニーズ. This restaurant serves everything — real sushi and sashimi, yakitori, and basically anything else you’d find in a standard izakaya fare such as shiokarashi, ika natto, and daikon sarada. Not only are all the chefs Japanese, so are most of the waitresses, and more bizarrely, at least two Filipino waitresses working in the restaurant also speak Japanese fluently (I spoke with one, and she apparently worked in Nagoya for five years before moving to Dubai).
* 菊 Kiku: Kiku is the leading competitor to Kisaku for authenticity, with possibly better sake but certainly inferior food (note: some Japanese friends disagree with me). The biggest letdown to this place is that the menu is in Japanese, the food is real, yet the Filipino waitresses don’t speak a word of Japanese. That may sound silly, but coming from Kisaku, it feels incomplete. Speaking with Japanese friends, eating Japanese food, the illusion of being back in Japan by the real Japanese food is ruined when I have to say, “A plate of hamachi sashimi, please… yes, that’s yellowtail.”
* 都 Miyako: Miyako is a lifeline for many of the Japanese who are in Dubai neither by choice nor desire. It is situated in the Hyatt Regency, which has an entire residence wing of hotel apartments that is full of Japanese people. It has a sushi bar, but is more of a standard teishokuya You can read a Japanese review here. There are a number of Japanese people who, given the option, won’t even leave the Hyatt Regency complex on weekends, part of the phenomenon I mentioned previously on MFT here.
* Nobu: The Dubai branch of the signature restaurant by world-famous L.A. Japanese chef Mitsuhisa Nobu is situated in the lowest floor of The Atlantis. Some might say that Nobu is not genuine Japanese food, it’s designed for the Western, not Japanese, pallet, and it’s absurdly overpriced, but I could never say such a thing publicly.
* Zuma: Zuma is apparently conceived by a Japanese chef but the cooking and wait staff are all non-Japanese international, from Filipino to Kenyan to Chinese to Belarussian. The food here is pretty close to being authentically Japanese but it’s missing a certain zest. Or said otherwise, Nobu is Japanese food made for Western people, where as Zuma is Japanese food conceived by a Japanese chef but made by non-Japanese. A comparison between the two can be read here.

11 thoughts on “ドバイ巻き and an Overview of Dubai’s Japanese Restaurants”

  1. Damn, wish there was as much solid choice around here!

    Any idea of what the various brands of locals think about Japanese food?

  2. I can’t speak on behalf of all locals ,but I think many of them carry the sentiment that japanese food is the “less conventional” choice when dining out. For example, a local is more likely to go to an italian restaurant or a fast food outlet than a japanese restaurant. Of course, once the barrier of trying new cuisines is broken ,I don’t see why they won’t like them. Heck, they might even gain a sort of “momentum” to try out all the dishes that place offers.

  3. I went to the UAE in Dec. 2001 and stayed in several beach resort hotels with my Japanese girlfriend. I was also surprised at the number of Filipino hotel staff who had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese.

    I was visiting friends who had lived in Japan and their big request was shiso salad dressing and yakiniku sauce which they couldn’t buy over there.

  4. Filipino staff are very common in the Japanese restaurant world outside Japan. Partly that comes down to visas. In many EU countries, it used to be the case that you could only get a working visa to be a sushi chef is you had something like three years as a head chef in a restaurant elsewhere. That was OK when most of the restaurants were high class affairs because you could get Japanese chefs willing to work there.

    When cheaper restaurants started opening, especially kaiten, it became a real problem. Immigration officials couldn’t really understand why they should be issuing visas for chefs to work in restaurants which were competing with sandwich bars anyway but, if they were going to do so, then they insisted on the experience criterion. Oddly, it was easy to get a visa for someone to work in a teppanyaki restaurant like Benihana which led restaurateurs to speculate that immigration officials thought teppanyaki must be harder than sushi because it seemed harder to say.

    There weren’t nearly enough EU citizens with the skills to handle sushi but Japanese chefs were far too expensive. Chinese chefs didn’t really have the skills for sushi although they did set up ramen shops. The US had a large Korean population which stepped into the gap (moonies run the True World Group, the largest sushi wholesaler in the States) but there weren’t many Koreans in Europe. The answer proved to be Filipino chefs.

    They had been employed in the restaurants of Japanese hotels around Asia and the Middle East since the early 80s. They had often been trained in Japan by the likes of JAL and ANA, spoke English and had enough experience to satisfy immigration. Some may have massaged the “head chef” condition but many had actually been given management authority. They usually had experience with broader Japanese menus and, sometimes, their wives had worked front of house so you got a ready-made team.

    When sushi began to take-off elsewhere in Western Europe, and later in places like Russia and Israel, quite a few of these Filipino chefs were lured away. However, they usually made sure a friend was on hand to take over their old job. In recent years, automation has meant that the need for skilled chefs has declined but Filipinos are still well-represented around the world where a restaurant is aiming at more than just fast food Japanese.

  5. ‘Dubai is constantly pushing to by number 1 at everything, the Dubai Roll has to have the top ingredients in the Dubai Roll.’


  6. “The US had a large Korean population which stepped into the gap (moonies run the True World Group, the largest sushi wholesaler in the States) but there weren’t many Koreans in Europe.”
    Although Korean-run sushi places are far more common, there are also a pretty sizable number run by Taiwanese. I think this is most common in the NYC/NJ/PA area.

  7. M-Bone: As to how the locals feel about the Japanese food, I’d say it’s relatively popular. Sheikh Mo, absolute monarch/CEO of Dubai, is a big fan of Zuma.

    treblekickeresq: I think things have changed since 2001 — the selection for Japanese ingredients and condiments in supermarkets isn’t great, but it’s solid. That’s probably helped by there being ~500 Japanese in Dubai in 2001, and about 3,000 today.

    Dude: amended.

  8. “I thought the Dubai-maki was billions of dollars wrapped up in oil and goofy real estate.”


    -and gilt and encrusted with precious stones!
    -and the longest in the world!

  9. Will I like Japanese food and I use to go to Japanese restaurant in the UK or in Taiwan or in Egypt. It is really the best so far. However I like to try some other Asian cuisines too. Korean and Filipino and Taiwanese I tried so far it is nice too.

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