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REVIEW: Brunch at Olea

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There is a pleasing clatter to Olea. The decor might be minimal – a cool, contemporary space in understated beige, olive greens and muted orange – but this is a step straight into a collision of the best of Levantine traditions. There is a hum of conversation around each of the packed tables, a rumbling thrum from the live oud player and the loud, playful barks of the tamarind juice server – complete with clinking glasses in his brass belt. Replace the slick leather furniture and the sculptural light fittings with some mother-of-pearl inlaid tables and you could easily be in Jounieh or Jebel Amman.

Frankly, it’s nice to be plunged back into the Middle East in this corner of Dubai, which is more associated with high-rises and high-end retail than the crowded, chaotic jumble of many parts of the Arab World. Thankfully, what was on offer under the hotlamps and the silver covers matched the surroundings, with the familiar aromas of lemon, thyme, coriander, sumac and red chilli hovering over pots of maqloubeh, chicken musakhhan and samak harrah.

We sampled the buffet-style Friday brunch, which offered a foretaste – both in food and format – of the iftars on offer during the Holy Month of Ramadan, and it will no doubt be a similar throng of activity in June and early July.

We started with the usual: smearings of hummus and the fiery muhammara, a specialty of Aleppo, Syria, that left a lingering warmth on the lips, a heap of a peppery couscous salad and a fattoush salad. The nicest surprise, though, was the presence of harraq ’osbao – literally “his finger’s burnt”. Another Syrian staple, it is a rich lentil stew with fried onions that ought to appear on more menus here.

Kebbeh nayyeh, the local version of steak tartare made with bulgur wheat and spices, might be an acquired taste, but there was a whole section dedicated to it, and it was smooth and light and slipped effortlessly onto the slabs of fresh-cut bread. The kibbeh maqliyyeh, served in elongated sausages, had a surprising spiciness, with small red chilli flakes detectable in the minced lamb – and again betraying its origins to the spice-loving Aleppo.

So far, so good. The best of the mains included the samak harrah, curls of hammour fillet stuffed with coriander and tomato, and the maqloubeh, the “upside down” dish of rice, meat and vegetables from Palestine – both of which had that always welcome home-cooked quality. The lamb and yoghurt mensaf was, according to our Jordanian dining companion, perfectly acceptable, which is a deep compliment for a dish prepared in kitchens across that country, although the one slight miss was the musakhhan, which lacked its essential fresh-from-the-oven crispiness provided by the taboon bread on which it usually sits.

All in all, then, this is an ideal place for Arab expats from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan to gather loved ones and grab a slice of home during Ramadan. For everyone else, it’s an ideal introduction to the textures and tastes of the northern-most tip of the region.

Three dishes to try…

Kebbeh hamees
The extra little kick from the red chilli helped elevate this mezze staple into something memorable.

Harraq Osbao
A rich stew of lentils and onions that should be scooped up with mounds of pita bread. Makes hummus look positively mundane.

Chicken Maqloubeh
Slices of pan-roasted chicken stir atop a pile of soft, sticky rice with potatoes and cauliflower.

Where: Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates
Contact: +9714 409 5111

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