UAE Portrait of a Nation: The Kebab king of Old Dubai
SOURCE: THE NATIONAL
BY: NICK WEBSTER
Hundreds of photos adorn the walls of Al Ustad Special Kebab, charting the gastronomic journeys of patrons past and present.
The famous Bur Dubai restaurant has attracted royalty and celebrities from across the entire Middle East for more than four decades.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, Crown Prince of Dubai is among them, as is a who’s who of Iranian singers and stars, a nod to the Al Ansaris’ family heritage.
In almost all the photographs are the smiling faces of the founder, the late Mohammed Al Ansari, who left Gerash in southern Iran for Dubai in 1941, as well as the eldest of his three sons, Majeed, a larger-than-life character still seen in the restaurant today.
It may be three years since patriarch Mohammed passed away, but the family is determined to continue his legacy for generations to come on Al Musallah Road.
“In this area alone there are more than 300 restaurants, with loads of choice for everyone,” said Majeed, 51, who is married with four children.
“There are two golden rules – serve good food and respect the people.”
The family is proud of the restaurant’s reputation and food, but what also draws their diners is the fun atmosphere.
Traditional Iranian dishes include mutton and chicken kebabs marinated in garlic yoghurt, as well as fragrant rice served with saffron and sumac, with a side of grilled tomatoes, onions and cucumbers.
Fresh lavash is served piping hot from the bakery across the road, and for dessert sticky dates are served with a delicious nutty sauce and mint tea.
“We are proud to have served the Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed here – he had a mixed grill with extra mutton in yoghurt,” Majeed said.
“Our recipes are not secret, but our cooks learn by working in the kitchen.”
Majeed’s father first ran a grocery shop and bakery in Bur Dubai before setting up the restaurant 41 years ago, working there until he passed away in 2015, at the age of 83.
“There is no doubt he created one of the best restaurants in Dubai,” Majeed said. “This is his legacy and we are proud to be a part of it.”
What sets Al Ustad apart from the thousands of restaurants across Dubai is clear. It has gathered an enviable reputation throughout the region.
“I worked with my father until 1986 and then I went to work for a cigarette company in Dubai,” said Majeed, who is in the restaurant every day with his brothers Talil, 48, and Abbas, 37.
“I continued to help out in the restaurant in the evenings, so I was very busy. This restaurant is my responsibility now.”
The family is proud of its celebrity draw and claims many of its patrons are “big bosses” of companies, but that they treat everyone equally.
“We have had many Arab singers and actors here, people do not believe the people who come – there are many A-list stars,” Majeed says.
“[Members of] the Royal Family have been here many times, we have all kinds of people, from tourists to billionaires, but we are all the same in the eyes of God.”
The family does not pay a single dirham to advertise the business, because they are already packed during afternoons and evenings.
“It is all word of mouth and people come from around the world to eat here,” Majeed said. “My father told me about a story of a man who sat down for a meal.
“He was a tourist who had lost all his money.
“My father did not charge him for his meal and gave him some money to help him on his way because the tourist was flying home early the next morning. That is the kind of man he was.
“A year later the same tourist came back and repaid the money he borrowed, with flowers and sweets for the children. It is that kind of place.”
The brothers take a keen interest in their customers, asking after family members and discussing the news of the day.
Stepping through the doors of Al Ustad Special Kebab is like walking back in time. Display cases show off collectible coins, model aircraft, a wide range of elaborate headgear and shisha pipes.
Heads of state stare out of bank notes from around the world under glass-topped dining tables.
But it is the food that takes centre stage.
Majeed accepts that the five-star hotel restaurants have their draw, but says that glamour and expense is not always the secret to success.
“Restaurants are like flowers. Some smell very nice, others not so – it is not always about how they look,” he says.