BB Restaurant spotlight
It was early January when my husband called to share the news of a new restaurant that had recently opened its doors in the DIFC. There was excitement in his voice, and when I asked what the latest addition to Dubai’s dining scene was like, all he said was “Just walk in and see for yourself.” His tone more than piqued my curiosity – little did I know that a massive breath of fresh air was awaiting my arrival.
With its main entrance hidden behind a cluster Benjamin Ficus trees, BB is a jewel nestled within the DIFC’s concrete jungle. Sky-high ceilings, monochrome tiled floors, and antique mirrors echo refined elegance, while long glass windows dressed in pristine white linen add a feminine edge.
There’s a touch of urban rawness as cascading potted plants sweep against the cobalt blue brick walls. If you were to go to a party at BB, you could easily be sitting with characters from the Great Gatsby to your left and Sheikh Hamdan to your right. Yes, it’s got that vibe.
Visit during the day, you’ll be met with the simple sophistication of the Hampton’s as an infinite supply of light streams in through the windows. Come in during evening hours, and its cool, candlelit discretion reminiscent of a New York loft. Women love it because it is chic, cozy, and oozes finesse. Men love it because it epitomizes cool.
As I began to peel the petals off the many layers of BB, I found it hard to believe that this three-floor restaurant spans only 1,800 square feet. There are five different seating areas – including two terraces – that suggest a unique dining experience within each space. One of the most distinct features of the restaurant is its winding staircase (get ready for a shoe parade). A rare sight in Dubai, the staircase unites all three levels, from the bar on the top floor, winding down into the kitchen, all the way down to the ground level. Flexing your calf muscles never felt so refreshing!
Sit by the kitchen and watch the chef and his team create culinary magnificence in a space so intimate, you’ll feel like it’s your own private dining experience. Or retreat to the garden terrace and let the bustle of the city melt away into the background while you sip on a glass of elderflower fizz.
The pillars that support BB stretch far beyond beautiful architecture and design. The friend, the rebel, and the pioneer define the spirit behind the project, and represent the trio that brought it to life. Shabnum Stumpf (the friend) along with husband Alex Stumpf (the rebel), and their partner Spero Panagakis (the pioneer) have over twenty years of experience each in the F&B industry, and share a history together at the acclaimed Zuma restaurant.
With Shabnum’s legendary marketing expertise, Spero’s excellence in hospitality and front of house, and Alex’s innovative culinary vision, embarking on this journey together was a natural culmination of their strengths. The connection amongst them is a powerful one, “The beauty between the three of us is that we all have a different core competency.” Confides Shabnum. “We have chosen to come together and we all contribute a different skill set into the business. I don’t think we could have done it without each other and that is ultimately the truth behind this project.” Walk into BB at any point in time, and you will find at least one part of the trio, if not all, ready to welcome you into the haven that has become very much like their home.
When Chef Alex finally invited me into his kitchen (I thought he would never ask!), I was impressed at how he could produce such magnificent cuisine in a compact space. He says it’s great because you “don’t have to move around much,” his wife Shab says it’s because “he’s a magician who runs his kitchen like an orchestra.”
After getting me up to speed on the dishes we would be making, I strapped on my very cool brown leather apron – hand crafted in Greece – embossed with the name BB in gold. An iron hook attaches to the apron to keep a dishcloth handy – a practical design touch indeed!
As Alex explained how the “spices of the Orient and the protein staples and sweets from the West” have resulted in the Eastern cuisine that is central to the menu, I was curious about the meaning behind the name of the restaurant. “BB is the name given to a respected and loved member of the community, usually a female in many cultures around the world. It is also derived from the Arabic word Habibi, meaning love.” There is somewhat of a play on words as key elements of the menu are broken down into four B’s –bao’s, bowls, bites, and bbq. Chef Alex’s “rebellious” culinary streak is a perfect match to the flexible character of Eastern cuisine.
Although culinary excellence can be traced back to Alex’s family tree, he was admittedly reluctant to start a career in the world of food. “I started cooking at the age of sixteen, but never wanted to become a chef. My parents are chefs and have always worked in the restaurant business. When it comes to F&B, you have to work weekends and holidays. At some point, after working a few different jobs just before school finished, I said ok, lets try this. My dad set up connections with restaurants and different kitchens. After about a week, I loved it, and I did my apprenticeship in Munich for three years.” His family’s influence on his career dates back to memories of an idyllic childhood when he was a little boy in Goldisthal in Germany. “My parents were cooking, my grandparents were baking. We had ducks, rabbits, and a garden with everything from spinach to potatoes, cucumbers, onions, fruits – you name it. I was always exposed to this life.”
BB takes pride in being “a friend to the community” by paying a great deal of attention to its customers’ needs. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or a meat eater – the menu is one of inclusion where everyone can partake in thoughtfully produced food. As consumers look towards benefitting their health and their environment, this is a generation with a thirst to know exactly where our food comes from and how it is produced. With this in mind, Alex highlights the importance of sustainability in designing the menu of the future.
So it came as no surprise that one of our first dishes was a vibrant twist on traditional hummus. A nutritional powerhouse, Alex’s super green hummus incorporates spinach, avocado, chickpeas, onions, tahini, garlic, lemon, and oil.
We blanched our spinach, shocked it in an ice water bath, and squeezed out any excess liquid with our hands.
Our solids of edamame, chickpeas, onions, herbs, and spinach were blitzed together until smooth, followed by tahini, garlic, and our liquids. “If we don’t follow this order or if you don’t squeeze the spinach, you have too much liquid,” warns Alex, “your blade won’t catch and you will never have a smooth paste.”
As we slowly spooned in our avocado, I could smell an intense freshness permeating the air. I swirled my spoon through to taste. It was truly delicious and light – healthy without compromising on flavor. Typically served with bao chips (more on that later), I could have eaten the whole batch straight out of the blender, but I risked being kicked out of the kitchen….
Next on the agenda was Alex’s interpretation of the traditional Taiwanese bao – a steamed bun and a staple in BB’s cuisine. Refreshingly simple, the bao is light in taste, airy in texture, and versatile enough to carry a multitude of complex flavors. Used as a base for several dishes on the menu, the dough is re-purposed to make bao chips, brioche, and their signature Baonut.
We started the process by dissolving yeast in a combination of milk and water. In a bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook, we added Chinese bleached flour, sugar, and salt (shhh, no measurements here, this is a mystery recipe). With the mixer running, we slowly trickled in the milk until it was all incorporated. We let the machine do all of the initial work for us, kneading the dough until it started to get sticky. After the dough reached the ideal consistency, it was left to rise, covered, in the oven at a very low temperature.
The real fun began once we started rolling our bao! Since my darling husband always accuses me of manhandling my food (he’s right), immersing my hands in fists full of flour was a very therapeutic thing to do.
If BB’s winding staircase trains the leg muscles, then bao making is the ultimate arm workout! Alex instructs me to get all the air out of the dough so that it can rise one last time – no easy task for my trembling biceps.
We rolled the dough using a rolling pin with an adjustable thickness to make sure our dough was even. As we cut out rounds, Alex explained how bao’s differ from culture to culture. “Ours is different to the Chinese bao which is closed and looks like a dim sum, where this is more like a pac man. In Vietnam they say it’s like a dragons mouth. You can diversify, you can make it gluten free, whole meal, or with chia seeds inside.” I never knew how wonderful baos can be until chef gave me a crash course.
We cut out rounds for our bao buns, quickly shaping them between a chopstick, then let them rise on a baking sheet.
We weighed our dough for our brioche and Baonut – 80 grams – no more, no less. Rolling them into perfect little balls, I learned how to pinch and fold the bottom of each bao to avoid potential cracks. It looks simple to the untrained bao-maker, but I can assure you, this is seriously technical stuff.
A loaf pan was filled with seven rounds of dough, leaving enough room for expansion. A bit of egg wash and a touch of black sesame later, our dough was ready to bake into golden magnificence.
As we waited for our bao to rise and bake, we gathered our ingredients for Kale Tabbouleh. A modern take on an old classic, kale, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, chives, feta, parsley, mint and red onions – all regional flavors – were used to up the ante on this Lebanese salad.
Alex gave me a whiff of a deep, dark green oil made of basil and mint – so utterly fragrant that it takes this unassuming dish to a whole new level! We mix our veggies, toss in the oil along with a touch of Dijon vinaigrette. A final garnish of smoked shitake mushrooms, and sahtein!
Once our first bao was ready to assemble. Alex pulled apart a bun from our freshly baked brioche – so light and fluffy, you could almost curl it up into a ball, and use it as a pillow. He toasted it lightly, and cut a slit through the center. Succulent lobster was cut into chunks and tossed with cucumber, chives, and lime mayonnaise. Alex explains how we need a little fat to coat the bun before adding our lobster. We piled it high, finishing it off with freshly grated lime zest. What a smell! The flavor balance between the delicate aerated bun and the sweet lobster meat was divine…
When Alex pulled out a perfectly crisp, golden soft-shell crab from the fryer, I was intrigued. As I questioned how on earth he would fit it into our bao, we spread a dab of yuzukosho mayo on our steamed bun. The crab was delicately placed inside, claws side up. Although the presentation was simple, it was one of the prettiest dishes I have ever seen. Little strands of purple coleslaw and pea shoots added color and texture. This is the perfect example of how Alex has managed to elevate the humble bao into a contemporary gastronomic delicacy.
Just when I thought we were ready to dive into dessert, Alex pulled out a succulent rack of Iberico lamb (not to be confused with Iberico ham), ready to skewer and one of BB’s signature BBQ dishes. “Iberico” explains Alex, is “an area in Spain where the animals have a different feeding program. They are wild, and grass fed to establish their fat content – they are just happy lambs. The fat content is very good for flavor, and it’s a good fat that your body can actually work and burn off.”
Alex removed the bones, then cut the meat into long strips – rhythmically chopping through the tenderness of the meat. The strips were stacked against each other horizontally, skewered, then cut into a rectangular shape. The meat should technically be cold before throwing it on the grill to retain its perfectly uniform shape. A soy glaze coats the meat as it sizzles on the robata. Served with tzatziki and ribbons of thinly shaved cucumbers, it’s safe to say that this is dish is a meat lover’s paradise.
Last but definitely not least, Alex took me through the process of making BB’s coveted Baonut. An accidental take on a traditional donut, the Baonut was born after Alex discovered there was something very special about frying risen dough and coating it in superfine sugar. Served tucked away in a bamboo leaf alongside softly whipped cream and homemade strawberry jam in the brightest shade of red, you’re meant to cut through the Baonut before spreading on the accompaniments (in my case, I ripped right through it – no patience for a knife).
I could tell you how delicious it was, or how luscious it tasted when you sunk your teeth into the soft airy dough swirled with the decadence of the jam and the cream…but some things are left best discovered on your own, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.
As we wrapped up our cooking session, Alex gave me the heartiest high-five ever, and sat me down to taste the magnificent food we had created. A feeling of nostalgia swept over me. Maybe it was because I felt like I belonged, or maybe it was because I knew that at BB, it‘s always more than just the food.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was the discovery that deep inside every one of us, there lies a friend, a rebel, and a pioneer.
BB in the Spotlight shot on Location at BB DIFC
Photos by Tara Atkinson
Dress by Jonathan Simkhai available at Bloomingdale’s in the Dubai Mall
Makeup by Bianca at Pro Team Middle East at Bloomingdales in the Dubai Mall
Hair by Deena at Aveda Middle East at Bloomingdale’s in the Dubai Mall