Vegetarian and vegan diners will have plenty of options to choose from this festive season Image Credit: Supplied

Christmas dinner never has been about trends — it’s always been driven by the warm fuzziness of family squabbles, dry and overcooked turkey and presents you can’t wait to exchange. But as restaurants across the country look to bring in punters in a competitive market, embracing contemporary eating patterns makes economic sense.

So while the majority of the UAE’s eateries are plating up tried-and-tested Yuletide favourites (read: plenty of turkey, even out at sea on the QE2), a significant number are carving out a niche for themselves with menus that respond to the way we eat at the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

We try to evoke nostalgic Christmas memories through flavours such as cinnamon, cranberries and peppermint to give our guests the comforting feeling of home.

- Tala Anne Khamis, Managing Director at Tub of Butter

Tala Anne Khamis, Managing Director at Tub of Butter, the incongruously named stand-alone eatery on Shaikh Zayed Road, explains how restaurants are treading the fine line. “With the plethora of festive offerings around town, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remain prominent in the UAE’s competitive landscape,” she says. “This further drives innovation and creativity by operators and chefs to preserve the finest culinary standards. We try to evoke nostalgic Christmas memories through flavours such as cinnamon, cranberries and peppermint to give our guests the comforting feeling of home.”

Local restaurants are unpacking everything from seasonal crops and regional flavours to fermented foods, plant-forward meals, street eats and ethnic spices on to their festive menus.

A vegetarian feast

Plant-forward diners have reason to rejoice this season, says Khamis. “Veganism and vegetarianism have seen a big spike in 2018, so we always keep alternative options for our festive offerings like our famous nut roast, although this does not mean that we shy away from the classic turkey dinner.” Her team has also reworked its menu to cater to the other big trend of the year: wholesome food. “People have also become more health-conscious in general and particularly wary of their sugar intake, so we’ve implemented the use of sugar alternatives such as agave nectar, honey and molasses. Sustainability is another trend that is gaining momentum and we pride ourselves on sourcing produce that are grown, farmed or caught sustainably.”

Street food

While more traditional menu items are available at Jones The Grocer, Dusit Thani Dubai is keen to get UAE residents to embrace the hearty flavours of street food in the special season. In a year when hawkers have won Michelin stars (and chefs with Michelin-star restaurants are going to the street), the hotel’s new 24TH St. eatery replicates the dining experience of a busy Asian hawker centre, complete with speciality kiosks serving Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Indian delights. By doing so, it also cleverly cashes in on one of the decade’s meta-trends: the rise and rise of regional foods.

We didn’t only incorporate food trends into our festive offerings, we even opened an entire restaurant.

- Prateek Kumar, Regional Vice-President of Dusit International for EMEA and GM of Dusit Thani Dubai

“We didn’t only incorporate food trends into our festive offerings, we even opened an entire restaurant,” says Prateek Kumar, Regional Vice-President of Dusit International for EMEA and General Manager of Dusit Thani Dubai. To up the ante for diners over the festive season, 24TH St. will feature a broad assortment of street-style eats and drinks, including authentic Thai specialities from its Benjarong restaurant and plenty of international fare.

Other restaurants playing to their strengths with menus that tie into their particular concept but still offer alternatives for diners who can’t stomach more than one turkey dinner? City Walk Dubai venues Toro+Ko, the Barcelona-style tapas bar, and Peruvian restaurant Lima, both of which have special menus in line with their unique serving propositions. At Galvin next door, chef Luigi Vespero manages sustainability, regionality and authenticity all at once: locally farmed oysters from Dibba Bay in Fujairah have been given pride of place on the restaurant’s current menu, while pastillas and tagines share space with pissaladières and tartare.

Reinventing classics

Other chefs go further, by adapting classic recipes to local tastes in the eternal search for novelty, which retains its pulling power even at Christmas. “Traditional festive favourites blended with local spices and cooking techniques are what people want to experience. They want to taste something unique and exclusive, something they haven’t tasted and wouldn’t find anywhere else,” says Gian Raffaele Sabbatucci, Director of Food and Beverage at Le Méridien Al Aqah. “We recently introduced fried breaded dates, filled with blue cheese and wrapped with beef bacon, served with Arabian garlic sauce. It was very well received by local residents and international guests.”

Traditional festive favourites blended with local spices and cooking techniques are what people want to experience.

- Gian Raffaele Sabbatucci, Director of Food and Beverage at Le Méridien Al Aqah

Keeping up with trends is about catering to customer demand, he says. Vegan alternatives and sugar substitutes naturally find space on his menus.

In Dubai’s Business Bay, Taj Dubai has lit up its menus with as many current trends as possible, says Vikas Milhoutra, the hotel’s Executive Chef. “Food trends of 2018 are not to be dismissed as merely trends,” he says. “The way people are looking at dining out has changed for the better, and there won’t be any looking back. Food is the best medicine for a healthy life and this philosophy goes through our food offering, including at festive times.”

The way people are looking at dining out has changed for the better, and there won’t be any looking back.

- Vikas Milhoutra, Executive Chef, Taj Dubai

Plant-based choices, alternatives to sugar and regional cuisines are all being served up at the hotel — and turkey is available for those who seek it out. So there are vegan hot dogs, wholegrain healthy breads made from quinoa and almond flour, sugar alternatives such as palm jaggery in desserts, and every Saturday through to the end of the year, regional recipes from the Indian state of West Bengal.

“We’re currently using a very healthy natural palm jaggery sugar called nolen gur from Bengal at our speciality Indian restaurant Bombay Brasserie,” Milhoutra says.

Every Saturday until December 29, guests can indulge in a unique menu showcasing delights from Bengal, along with live art and music. Menu highlights include Nizam roll (stuffed paratha canapes) kosha mangsho (spicy lamb curry) chingri malai curry (prawns cooked in coconut milk) and mishti doi (sweet yoghurt).

That’s something you’re definitely going to want to photograph, which brings us to the most enduring trend of them all. Just like that turkey menu, Christmas has always been about photos, and our Instagram-fuelled lives offer yet another way to update that idea for today. Just make sure you’re wearing your ugly jumper as you tuck into whatever it is you want to be pretentious about. Season’s eatings, everyone!