Ninive, which sits just outside the popular La Cantine du Faubourg at Emirates Towers, is a Babylonian-meets-majlis al fresco restaurant dominated by an understated elegance and slightly exotic feel. Designed by London-firm Hopscotch, even it’s name – ‘Ninive’ – refers directly to its evocative ambiance by referring to Nineveh, the name of one of the oldest Mesopotamian cities, purported by researchers to be the location of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Settling in between lush foliage, intimate alcoves, low brass tables and wood, leather and textile lounge-style seating, the tone is immediately set to be one of a leisurely, lux indulgence. Though it offers shisha – and a dismissive first glance may relegate it to merely a “shisha lounge”, it impressively and discreetly segregates smokers from diners so that those who wish to embrace the majlis vibe without all its accouterments, can enjoy a slow evening too. And the food does not disappoint.
Positioning itself at a crossroads of time, legends and cultures, Ninive likewise caters its menu to a broad range that touches on dishes from Iraq through to the Levant region. With Head Chef Gilles Bousquet, who trained under Gordon Ramsay and Lew Kathreptis, at the helm and Sous Chef Ibrahim Ata at his side, though the menu does reflect a broad range of influences, there is a strong focus on Turkish fare. While cuisine from the region is characterised by several small dishes – mezze style – Ninive follows through on this demand, but it is key to note that the dishes are substantial in impact, if not in size, and it is wise to order on the more conservative side.
Dishes arrive in a steady stream, the lower positioning of tables – more akin to coffee tables – adjust the mindset for a nibble-and-go approach, as opposed to formal dining. As plates reach the tabletop, we find ourselves presented with an Iraqi-influenced Tamarind Chicken that is gorgeously sticky, tart and sweet all at once; the signature Fattoush, which differentiates itself with crisp green apple and Iranian Maast O Khiar, which typically is a straightforward yoghurt dish but here it comes with plump golden raisins, walnuts and rose water, rendering it less of a sauce and more of an unctuous dip. Interestingly, the dishes do not appear in the typical mezze order, but for diners who want to be more selective in their sharing, this will hold appeal.
Next comes a dish that many familiar with Lebanese cuisine will call Lahme Bajin – but Ninive’s is a Turkish approach called Lahmacun, a form of Turkish pizza, Chef Ibrahim tells us, with a delicate, crispy thin crust coated with beautifully seasoned lamb that even for lamb naysayers, will prove a success. The last “starter” was the Briwat, a goat and string cheese puff pastry with black currant and walnut of Moroccan origins, featuring a surprising textural twist. While each dish has its own distinct presence, the more noticeably “main” dishes included Manti, a Turkish dumpling filled with ground meat and smothered with a rich yoghurt, tomato, dry mint, sumac and chili sauce, which is not unlike certain Armenian dishes, and the Stuffed Baby Chicken. The poultry dish, though tastily filled with barley, foie gras and tomato sauce, has less of a seductive palette than the other dishes, which featured refined and subtle flavour profiles.
The flow of a meal at Ninive, along with the lush surroundings, will have you wiling away the evening before the final impact of the dessert. Chef Ibrahim laughs as he notes that the dishes are rich, but his favourite is the Pistachio Sarma, a Turkish dish featuring pistachio, tahini and butter rolled through a dough, baked in a wood oven, and served with vanilla ice cream. It is as glorious, and gluttinous, as it sounds – creamy, buttery, flaky, savoury and sweet all at once – a delight for even those who don’t love dessert. But one bite is enough, lest the other desserts be forgotten or abandoned in favour of the star sweet: Ninive’s Amond Kunaffe. It comes with orange sorbet and is pleasant, while their Orange Blossom Panna Cotta offers a lighter touch to the final notes of the experience.
Each dish may have its own persona, but they speak of a region rife with history, cultural fusions, and directly to a public that is cosmopolitan and ready to explore the flavour pockets that make up the Middle East. And as the season heats up, Ninive is prepared to keep running by providing air-conditioning and a retractable roof during the day, and is providing a special Iftar menu during Ramadan which offers a selection of its tastiest dishes.