The Souk Brunch at Olea - Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

How do you create a high-end brunch that stands out from many other brunches in the highly competitive Dubai market? Draw on the region's influences and offer an authentic experience that takes you beyond the usual burrata, foie gras, seared scallops, and wagyu stations that characterise most brunches. Admittedly, I camp at those respective stations, but then a brunch like the Souk brunch emerges and you realise the limitations of your own appreciation for brunches. 


Stepping through the door at the Olea brunch is like travelling to a different time; a time when life was simple and regions were bounded by their commonalities and not divided by their differences. The contrast is felt even more keenly because of that transition from the modern opulence of the Kempinski hotel, to a brunch that resembles a souk - spices, fruit and vegetables on display and items on sale as well. 

The first 30 minutes take me back to my best experience of a souk I have had in my time in this region - Amman, Jordan in 2008. I remember walking down one of the streets. There was a long line of people buying something. I did not know what it was. I joined the line. It ended up being the best kunaffa I have had. But it is that emotion that is awakened as I take in the early moments of Olea. This emotional time warp is completed as the tamarind juice man (no one could tell me what I should call him) offers me a drink. Again it reminds me of Jordan, this time from my 2009 trip. It is not often that I connect with a brunch at an emotional level, and all this happens even before I start eating. 

The Tamarind man - soul of the brunch?

It is a Levantine brunch, celebrating the cuisine of Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus. There are many outstanding dishes. But more than the individual dishes, it is the manner in which each dish is prepared. While it is a buffet, there is a quick turnover of dishes, ensuring freshness. This is done by making smaller portions compared to your usual over-sized portions I se at many brunches. This is immediately evident when I try the cold mezze - the Muhammara and Shankleesh - individual servings thoughtfully presented in smaller bowls. 

Shankleesh and Muhammara
Then, there is the Manakish. This Levantine staple is freshly made, and as I watch the chef, I can't help looking at all the other chefs. There is a joy in what they do. I have been around long enough to know this is a tough industry, but when I see such warmth and sincerity in a  team of chefs, I marvel at their professionalism. This is emphatically brought home when two hours into the brunch, they break into a spontaneous dance. When you cook with love, as I believe they do, the food is amazing and transcends the ingredients. Isn't that the reason when you visit your home country your first meal is cooked by your mother?

Back to the dishes here. Make sure you try the Lamb mansaf, the Jordanian national dish. The goat yogurt sauce is delicious, and coupled with slow cooked lamb that falls off the bone, you have a dish you cannot miss. Two Palestinian dishes turn out to be my favourites of the day -  Chicken musakhan and the Chicken magluba. Finally, the lentil soup is of the best I have had in the country. Every spoonful is like having real lentils, if you know what I mean. 


Lively brunch

While the brunch is held together by an oud player in terms of entertainment, do not be lulled into a thinking it is a quiet brunch. It is the oud player who with his vocals, is able to set the tone for what is a very lively brunch. Forget the standard mello jazz that you find at most brunches. And it can get lively at any moment. Order Arabic ice cream, and you hear the rhythmic pounding of the ice cream (it makes the ice cream very stretchy and chewy) in tandem with the oud player. There is nothing rehearsed about it - very much like a souk! Genuine. 


In-keeping with the authentic feeling at the brunch, the wine is from Lebanon - the Ch√Ęteau Ksara label. It is the second brunch in recent months that I attend where Lebanese wine is served, and I am thrilled. I am getting tired of the usual Chilean and Argentinian offerings at many brunches. The bubbly is courtesy of a Prosecco, and perfect for the brunch. With it slightly fruitier elements, it beats the dryness of a champagne, making for a better pairing with these dishes. 

The Verdict

It is hard to believe the brunch was only recently launched because it was so slick and well oiled. Looking ahead though, I would like to see more done for kids in terms of main dishes. My daughter has quite a developed palate but she felt there was not much for her. This will be typical of Western kids. I do not want to see French fries and chicken nuggets either. But a dedicated area for kids along the lines of the kids' dessert station would be great. Kids' size shawarmas, smaller kebabs and Shish taouk lollipops or sliders! 

The Souk brunch is more than a brunch. It is a journey to some fascinating countries, and the tour guides are the chefs and waiters. Last year I visited about 35 brunches and I remember only 12. I will definitely remember this brunch. Head Chef Bilal and his team have taken guest engagement to a different level and have broken down the gap that usually exists between the chef and the guest. 

Overall, it was a jovial brunch; a happy brunch, where for 4 hours individual boundaries of countries did not matter. It was about the food shared by these Levantine countries. Great food. 

The Essentials

Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates
Sheikh Zayed Road
+971 4 3410000

225 AED Soft Drinks
295 AED Wines
395 AED Prosecco ( all net)

                                                                   Disclaimer: I was invited to experience the Souk Brunch courtesy of the hotel
Brandon Stoltenkamp