This is a story about food and bikers, but they’re not all hairy, and none of them are chefs. That doesn’t mean they don’t know their food, though.
“Food has always been a passion for all of us,” says Huzaifa Sura, one of the partners behind HQ’S 459, a home-grown Mediterranean concept whose eye-catching interiors and beautiful plates have proved popular over at Dubai’s new La Mer seafront development.
It’s a sentiment echoed by his mates Shabbir Taher and Qaid Fakhruddine. The three, who met as part of a Harley Davidson motorcycle club, are among a slew of long-time Dubai residents venturing into the food and beverage business, opening new restaurants across all categories.
As of the beginning of this year, there were more than 16,000 food outlets and restaurants in the emirate, including 2,074 new openings between the middle of 2015 and the end of 2016, according to the UAE Food Industry Report 2017, a publication of the Food and Beverages Manufacturing Business Group, which is associated with Dubai Chamber.
Many, like our three friends, have never been in the industry before. “I’ve absolutely zero experience in F&B, but we’ve hand-picked the menu and tasted everything at least 10-12 times,” Taher tells me over the phone between business trips, explaining how he spent weeks convincing officials at Meraas, the mall’s developer, to take a chance on three industry newbies and let them have the space.
HQ’S 459 — the name is taken from the initials of each partner and a figure that’s special to all of them; the plot number — aims to play in the space between casual and fine dining, serving familiar recipes that are varied just enough to appeal to jaded palates in a vibrant ambience that echoes the ocean (Some 21,000 cardboard tubes undulate, wavelike, across the ceiling and a wall-to-wall TV screen channels the deep, setting it apart from other outlets here). Cleverly capitalising on its beach-facing location, its signature meal is breakfast, which is served until 4pm (“We knew from the start that breakfast was the way to go,” says Sura.)
From waffles to pancakes and avocado toast, then, it’s clearly playing to Dubai’s wide demographic. An example is the three different Benedicts: eggs, short ribs and avocado. There’s burgers and salads and soups, all employing techniques and ingredients that are very much of the moment. The Ahi tuna in the Nicoise is seared and comes with kale, there’s a vegan pave, an iceberg wedge features sous vide chicken breast, the al dente ravioli is stuffed with achingly trendy oxtail.
Dinner is more elaborate, but still casual enough to be comfortable. Slow-cooked sous-vide king prawns served with mussels and French gnocchi, sea bream with barley risotto, patty pans and a dash of dashi, or the star of the show, a gentle steak tartare livened up with caramelised onions and apple matchsticks. It’s LA with a touch of Asia. “The focus is on clean flavours that excite the palate,” James Kim, the American chef who consulted on the menu at the start, explained to me.
Sura says the menu will be updated regularly, but the focus remains on wowing the customer.
“We want to serve excellent quality food that satisfies our guests and has the best eye appeal,” chef Jude Gomes, an Emirates Airline Lounge alumnus who heads the kitchen, said on a return visit earlier this week. “We’re trying to use local, sustainable produce wherever possible, such as the sea bream, but we are also sourcing ingredients from everywhere — lamb from Australia, salmon from Norway.” When we visited earlier this week, the special was an Alaskan crab salad that hadn’t been on the menu last month (it had a little too much mayonnaise for my taste, but it was nevertheless an indulgent dish). A strip loin steak, served with courgettes, patty pans and wild mushrooms, was better, the strong flavours of the meat complemented by the squash.
The restaurant has barely been open a few weeks, and like every other, it needs time to find its feet. (On Monday night, a staff member serving us offered me bread, despite my having told him earlier about my gluten intolerance — and the bill came with the wrong price on it.) Yet, HQ’S 459 seems to have found an audience already, whether they’re coming for the breakfast, the Nitro cappuccino or the social evening fare.
But Sura and his mates are clearly in it for the long haul, aware that break-even could be two years away. “The risk is totally worth it,” says Taher, who’s done this before. He explains how he moved here in 1987 with $130 (Dh477.48) to his name, before proceeding to build a businesses in electronics retail and real estate — both fields he knew nothing about. His partners have similar profiles: Sura, for example, is the man behind Crystal Gallery, the souvenir and trophy company.
“Dubai is for people who can take risks, who want to grab the chance to make a life for themselves. You have to work hard — and if you do, you will succeed,” Taher says.