Creekside Brings Emirati Heritage And Flavors To Old Dubai

There must be 20 different routes to Creekside. You can arrive by water in an abra(a traditional wooden boat), or by following the sound of the haunting call to prayer at the nearby Grand Mosque. You can stroll through the Dubai Textile Souk, past the lively vendors calling out “Mariah. Shakirah. Beyonce”, to entice you to bargain for a pair of pointy-toed slippers, a hookah (water pipe) or a soft pashmina. Take a lucky wrong turn and you could end up in Indian Alley, a narrow secret passage dotted with stalls of incense and flower offerings, leading to a crowded Hindu Temple. The journey of finding Creekside is a big part of the experience.

The building is perched on the edge of the docks and originally served as a lighthouse, then a tailor’s workshop, before standing empty for a number of years and ultimately transformed into its current incarnation this past summer. Pull open the broad wooden doors and step into a serene, minimalist space—part cultural venue, part café—that compliments the endless bustle outside. Visitors sit at simple tables playing backgammon, sharing a meal, or working away on their laptops as outside fishermen, joggers, and tourists go about their daily lives. The air smells of cinnamon in promise of generous plates of food to come.

Creekside 2

Creekside 3

The ever-evolving menu is inspired by Emirati flavors but with a contemporary, Mediterranean twist and was developed by Chef Allen, a native of the Philippines with fine dining experience, including being part of the talented team that opened the 7-star restaurants at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

“We are recreating the idea of an old Arabic coffee shop but in a modern way. We are first and foremost a welcoming community space, but we do offer the food culture of the city,” says the space’s passionate manager, Noor Al Ghafari, who grew up not far from the Creek herself. Creekside is the latest brainchild of Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib, twin brothers born and raised in Dubai who care deeply about maintaining elements of the Emirati culture that seem to be diminishing as the metropolis develops. The two are founders of a parent company, Cultural Engineering, which has had a significant effect on Dubai’s cultural offering with various projects including The Archive at Safa Park, which connect people through activities and creative programming.

Creekside's minimalist majlis interior

Creekside’s minimalist majlis interior

Beginning in the cooler months of the year, Creekside is set to launch arts workshops, guided photography walks, live acoustic music evenings, indie film screenings, and a number of other free or low-cost activities, many of which will take place on the adjoining outdoor terrace positioned right beside the water taxi station out front. Noor says there are even plans in place to acquire a private abraa, which would be used to take visitors on off the beaten track tours.

Anyone who enters is given an illustrated map that aims to increase appreciation for the area’s surrounding buildings and long-time locals as more than just touristic attractions or landmarks. Noor confides, “It bothers me when people say that this city doesn’t have a soul. I ask them, “What kind of Dubai do you know? Come along and let me show you my version.”

Major Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Major Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Together with Arva Ahmed, who operates foodie tourism company Frying Pan Adventures, she often takes her camera and climbs the steep gangplanks into the area’s iconic blue boats to speak in broken Farsi with the traders and fisherman, most of whom come from Iran. These excursions are symbolic of a larger goal to create a relevant visual archive of the region. Noor clarifies that they want to dispel the idea that learning about culture and history can only take place in a museum.

Creekside's entrance

Creekside’s entrance

Sipping on an ice-cold glass of lemonade with mint, Noor explains, “This place is meant to bridge the gap between the heritage of Dubai and the contemporary context and serve as a platform for bringing people back to where it all started.” Black and white photographs by the British explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger line the walls, carefully curated to depict the Creek in the 1940’s and 50’s, when it was the heart of a modest, young city known mainly for pearl-diving and trading. A far cry from today’s high rise apartment buildings and sprawling villas, in the era of Thesiger’s visits, most people still lived in simple arish homes constructed of palm fronds, soon followed by innovations like adobe mud brick and the barjeel, wind towers that keep homes cool in summer and can still be found in nearby Al Fahidi Historic District.

From the beginning and into the present, every home was equipped with a majlis, a predominantly male gathering space with pillows or other communal seating arranged in a circle to encourage discussion and political decision-making. With its low bench that circles the space, Creekside is a retake on the majlis concept, and when the tables are removed and an event is in full swing, the arrangement encourages interaction and conversation among friends and strangers of all backgrounds.

While conceiving the menu, Chef Allen took long walks through the nearby souk and was inspired by local spices such as saffron and cardamom, consulting with many local friends about their favorite family recipes, before ultimately composing a selection of offerings that makes Emirati flavors accessible to a wider audience: “I worked in UAE hotels for quite some time, and during Ramadan I always saw a big tray of ouzi (a characteristic Gulf dish of braised lamb with pine nuts and raisins typically served on a mountain of saffron rice) every evening. I thought about a burrito, which has rice, meat, and sauce, and realized that these could be the typical ouzi ingredients but reinvented as a wrap.”

A version of this article first appeared in Open Skies magazine

A version of this article first appeared in Open Skies magazine

Chef Allen hopes that, “even though this is a café, people will be surprised by the menu and the cuisine.” The café serves an affordable all day breakfast (including a dangerously good sandwich of corn beef-hash patties served on an English muffin with local eggs), starters including a refreshing beet carpaccio, and numerous mains is open for three meals daily. The star of the show is arguably the ouzi burrito, the sort of comforting dish you find yourself craving days after your first taste.

The beet carpaccio I am so smitten with

The beet carpaccio I am so smitten with

Good Ideas: I emphatically suggest that you plan a visit to Creekside! I’m especially excited about the arts workshops, live music, heritage talks, and photo walks. For more information about the venue, menu, or program of activities and events go here.

Image Credits: Courtesy of Creekside. Gratitude is due to Open Skies Magazine for printing this article in the September, 2014 issue.