Happy hummus, as Greg Malouf likes to say. In Dubai's heady hospitality scene, where the distinction between "restaurant" and "nightclub" is hazy at best and Middle Eastern food plays second fiddle to European cuisine, the Australian-born chef admits he is swimming against the tide.
Preparing to open a new restaurant he describes as "cool Lebanese, if that's possible" in the next couple of months, Malouf says it's this resistance to Middle Eastern food that has kept him in Dubai. "Good-quality Middle Eastern food with value doesn't really exist here," he says. "So many restaurants are pitched at the high end - and if you don't have entertainment you don't really cut it."
Such was the fate of the Cle Dubai - "it was turning into a nightclub" - which he joined following his Michelin-starred success at London's Petersham Nurseries. Malouf left Cle Dubai last year after his contract expired and has spent the past 12 months consulting, doing one-off dinners and working on a cookbook with former wife Lucy Malouf; their eighth release is an exploration of the vegetarian food of Beirut, due out later this year.
The new venture is called Zaahira, a 130-seat restaurant and bar in the five-star H Dubai hotel. The menu will include Malouf's famous take on bisteeya - most likely a duck version - as well as plenty of mezze such as wagyu basturma with house-made shanklish. Other dishes might include lentil tabbouleh, Gulf prawns with green chermoula, slow-cooked lamb shoulder, Egyptian-style pigeon, and calamari and scallops in a couscous and tomato stew.
"I don't really want to break too many rules for this menu," says Malouf. "The customers will primarily be locals and Arabs and they get wary of their cuisine being played around with too much." And there are a number of unwritten rules that must be observed - for example, meat shouldn't be served bloody, and whole fish is best avoided in favour of fillets.
"The edge we have is that there's Lebanese blood flowing in the kitchen and diners like the fact I'm in there cooking," he says. "The name Malouf is very strong in this part of the world. It comes from a town in Lebanon famous for its food, so people immediately associate you with good food."
Born in Melbourne to Lebanese parents, Malouf is best known in Australia for the various iterations of his award-winning Melbourne restaurant MoMo. In bad news for local audiences, the latest venture means he is likely to stay overseas for the foreseeable future. "I've always been interested in doing something in London," he says. "The restaurant's owners are keen to open something there eventually. It's my dream."
For the moment, however, the fate of the first Zaahira restaurant in Dubai hinges on the current building schedule. "We're due to open in April," says Malouf. "Or the way things run around here, maybe that will be May."
Zaahira Restaurant, The H Dubai, 1 Sheikh Zayed Rd, Dubai, UAE, h-hotel.com