Is this restaurant the best hidden gem in the city?

They say familiarity breeds contempt, so it’s nice to get out of the city and try something new sometimes.

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The same goes for food: We all have our favourite haunts and hangouts, but every now and then you need to step out of your comfort zone and broaden your horizons.

On the recommendation of a friend, I take a guest on a trip to Al Bahia to visit Café Mandarina, with the hope of finding a new favourite haunt outside of the city.

Based at Mandara Equestrian Club, it’s unlikely you’d stumble upon this restaurant unless you were an avid rider, or like us, heard about it through word of mouth.

The welcoming restaurant feels like a cross between a majlis and a family home; in fact, it was originally intended to be the living room of the owner’s house, who transformed the building into a restaurant to provide food and drinks for riders and visitors.

With large windows overlooking the equestrian club and surrounding farms, it’s a unique setting for sure, but what about the food?

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“From the farm to the fork” – that’s the philosophy the humble owners have for their cuisine, with ingredients grown a stone’s throw away from the kitchen being used as much as possible to provide an organic, local and sustainable dining experience.

We start with Faysal’s Fave salad, a medley of romaine lettuce, halloumi, olives, grapes and herbs. Refreshing and packed full of flavour, it’s already clear that the food is made with passion, proudly bringing locally grown ingredients to the table.

What comes next is a showstopper. The lamb signature, prepared 24 hours in advance, is as good as it gets. Slow cooked and covered with Middle Eastern spices, pomegranate and pistachios, the meat redefines the word tender, falling apart with ease. It’s a triumph, expertly paired with fragrant garlic and ginger-infused rice. We’d come back for this dish alone.

The Asian-style chicken, served with cool and spicy mango, is no slouch either; it’s refreshing on the palate, with a mellow chilli aftertaste and aromatic flavour from the spices.   

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On to the desserts. Adding a twist to the Arabic favourite, umm Ali, the abu Ali reminds me of my own mother’s bread pudding. Replacing the filo pastry with brioche, the milk-soaked bread is rich with notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom, topped with nuts and dried fruit – perfect for the winter months.

But it’s the molten cake that captures my guest’s heart – and tastebuds. A huge chocolate pudding that oozes with liquid chocolate when gently sliced, it’s a chocaholic’s dream.

Satisfied and full, we leave feeling like we’ve visited a friend’s house that happens to serve restaurant-quality food and I look forward to my next visit.

For a unique dining experience and great food, I recommend you take a journey out of the city yourself to see what Café Mandarina is all about.

Need to know: 

Location: Café Mandarina, Mandara Equestrian Club, 991 Rahba Farm, Al Bahia
We say: A gem of a find
Cost: AED 240 for two
Opening times: Sun-Thu 1pm-11pm, Fri 2pm-midnight, Sat 10am-11pm
Contact: 02 304 8374, cafemandarina.com

WORDS Colin Armstrong

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