Focusing on the real meaning of iftar - Market Kitchen and Suzanne Husseini, Le Royal Meridien Hotel, Abu Dhbai

It is a difficult balance for hotels and restaurants to strike with iftars. They have become such big corporate events now where businesses use them as an opportunity to thank their staff while also trying to forge new relationships and connections. In all of this hurlyburly, there is something that is lost. That 'something' is the significance of iftar. 

Thankfully, there are a few iftars that are able, by design or unwittingly, to bring home a sense of why we have iftars. As it is, many families choose to stay home anyway and have an intimate iftar, where 'How was your day?' is metaphoric for the art of conversation, which is lost as we join some of the big iftars. There is a place for both styles of iftar, do not get em wrong. I am just glad there is the small iftar as well. Last year, Market Kitchen's was one of my two favourite iftars because I appreciated it from a foodie's perspective where a set menu served at the table meant less wastage and of course, better and fresher food than your average buffet. In fairness,  a table iftar does not always translate to great food and I have been to big iftars where the quality of food was top drawer - but that is more the exception than the rule. 

This year Market Kitchen collaborates with Suzanne Husseini to bring an iftar experience that sets out to refocus us on what iftar is really about. Suzanne and Market's own Chef de Cuisine Grant Ballinger have created a menu that seeks to effortlessly marry Market Kitchen's philosophy with Suzanne's.  As a guest of the restaurant, I tried the iftar a few days ago - the Market Iftar.

The set menu is recognisable as a Market Kitchen concept where we have 4 courses. Anyone who has been to the restaurant will immediately pick this up. Iftar starts off with dates and water of course, while Orange lentil soup is served soon after. Lentil soup is one of those dishes no one interferes with because we know it so well and Suzanne keeps its essential quality - homeliness. The subtle change in flavour never interferes with my idea of this soup. 

Soon after, freshly baked bread, Labneh and Muhammara or Roasted red pepper and Hummus are served. The highlight of the bread selection is Zatar scones that soon has echoes of 'mmmm' and 'ahhhh' around the table. The scones are simple and well baked with a perfect balance between outer and inner texture. Moreover, she has just the right amount of zaatar in it. Finally, the muhammara has generous spiciness which I appreciate. Chefs are often too mindful of foreign palates that they rob this dish of something intrinsically good - spice. 

Before we start our second course, as she did last time she visited Market Kitchen, Suzanne goes around to every single table. She will be here for the duration of Ramadan, so she will be doing this every night. I love the energy and passion as she talks about the inspiration behind some dishes, always connecting the guest to her own kitchen, be that now as an adult or as a little girl having iftar with her own mum and dad. This is real. 

Our second course is then served: Fattouche Salad, Filo Cheese Sambousek and Grilled aubergine with lamb and mint yoghurt. I like her twist on croutons as she presents the pita bread pieces as thin curled strips. With classic dishes, you should be wary of trying to change things, but she manages to do this in a subtle but noticeable way that does not detract from the true dish. I should also mention the sambousek - I am often faced with heavy, doughy pastry that takes my attention away from what is inside. In using filo pastry, she allows me to really enjoy the cheese because the pastry is so light. 

Finally, the eggplant dish, we all agree is again, homely. A friend retorts that she cannot make it so how could it be homely. I point out to her what makes it homely is really the simplicity of it all. Ingredients that are easily found at your local supermarket and a presentation that requires nothing special is what I am talking about. Homely. Iftar. There is such a close connection between these two concepts but is sacrificed in your large iftars. 

As we wait for out main course, we have time to reflect. Reflect. I find myself recalling Suzanne's words - Iftar is about breaking bread together. As a non-Muslim who is actually fasting this Ramadan, these words have added significance. It does not matter what one eats at iftar or how big and lavish the spread is. It is about sitting down with people close to you and celebrating what we have rather than concentrating on what we lack. It is about the abundance in our lives and not the deficiencies. And this is why iftars like this are special. Serve amazing food of course; after all, it is a business, but remind us why we have iftars and minimise wastage.

I am feeling very introspective, but this is paused as our main dishes are brought: Braised lamb shank, Pan-seared Red Mullet, Saffron rice and Spicy roasted baby potatoes. Again, homely. This is a recurring motif this evening. Chunky tomato pieces in the tomato sauce bring exactly that quality to bear on the lamb. Also, okra is such a workers' vegetable and is given prominence in this dish. By the way, Suzanne cooks it really well, ensuring that my own fears with this challenging vegetable are not realised; it can be slimy. As for the lamb, 5 hours slow cooked.Nice. 

While the baby potatoes do not quite reach the spicy level I was expecting - it is called that - and consequently do not excite me much, the Red Mullet does. This is a  staple at Market Kitchen and the generous tahini based salsa it is sat in, makes it the best red mullet I have had at Market Kitchen. Make sure to savour that crispy skin. Finally, the saffron rice - make sure you have the lamb or red mullet with it. Home. Home. Home. Enough said. 

Finally, dessert completes our evening: Attayef, M'hallaba with fresh fruit salad and Chocolate felafel. The Attayef, a typical and exclusively Ramadan dessert connects me again to the spirit of Ramadan. The Chocolate felafel is simply clever. Dark Valrhona chocolate evokes a felafel on close examination, but that is where the resemblance ends. A bite reveals a very decadent experience, while the M'hallaba just melts in my mouth. The fruit salad for me is highlighted by figs, a beautiful but underused fruit.  Make sure to have your phones ready for pics. What a pretty end to the evening.

Market Iftar by Suzanne Husseini is not just an iftar. While her collaboration with Grant Ballinger is an unequivocal down success from a food perspective, this is more than about food. It is an experience. Worked into the concept is Suzanne visiting tables and while the food is very good, her stories, her childhood and her experiences complement and indeed make it a special evening. Foregoiners often, myself included, callously say 'hummus is hummus' - I am not debating the merits of this and apologies to chefs, but what we mean is there has to be more to an iftar than the food. And this is where this iftar rises above all others I have tried. Yes, she is a smart businesswoman who knows how to charm her guests, but everyone who meets Suzanne, walks away with an impression that speaks volumes for her sincerity and down to earth nature. In this iftar, she reminds us that we are here to break bread, together, as friends or family. Now that is iftar. 

Market Kitchen
Le Royal Meridien, Khalifa Street,
Abu Dhabi
971 2 674 2552

Market Iftar by Suzanne Husseini 200AED pp++
Note: There is a new menu every week, while she keeps some favourites on it. 

Brandon Stoltenkamp