Spotlight on Ninive
What if I told you there lies a secret garden nestled within Dubai’s skyscrapers – an urban majlis overflowing with lush vegetation, Moroccan-inspired woodwork, and lighting so romantic that you can’t help but feel you’ve been swept into a story reminiscent of One Thousand and One Nights? You would have to believe me, because outside of the tales of Arabia, this place most certainly exists.
Inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and it’s link to the ancient Arab world, Ninive – named after ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh – sits suspended within Emirates Towers on a sprawling terrace overlooking Dubai International Financial Center’s skyline. A sanctuary juxtaposed against the glass towers that rise from the background, Ninive’s terrace is open, inviting, and maintains a certain degree of privacy at the same time.
Majlis-inspired seating in colors that harmonize with the surrounding greenery is in perfect synch with rich, dark woodwork, and hanging amber lanterns. Ninive is where the simplicity of a Bedouin tent converges with the magic of Moroccan design.
Lounge under the shaded area of the majlis as you sip on afternoon tea – Arabic and Moroccan of course – while nibbling on sweets inspired from the region.
The bar, carved of the same wood throughout the majlis, comes to life with the beat of enchanting oriental tunes while you sit at sunset and watch the nightfall. If you catch the subtle shift in light at just the right time, I promise you, you’ll be awe-struck with a glimpse of fleeting beauty.
Ninive was born out of a simple desire to bring shisha to Emirates Towers. It started with an empty terrace until the idea took on a life of it’s own. Ninive’s founders, Helena Paraboschi, Pierre Pirajean and Rizwan Kassim, had already built and established La Cantine du Faubourg next door. As restaurateurs for over 30 years, they were inspired by the generosity, abundance, and simplicity of the Arabic heritage, which led to the journey to develop Ninive. The trio engaged James Lees of Studio Hopscotch and brand architect Andrew Mitchell, together with the help of “The Confused Arab” Sofiane Merabet to instill a sophisticated pan-Arab mindset to the restaurant. It was the dream team that catapulted Ninive’s ethos, design and physical space to fruition. A true desert rose with a romantic ambiance that set the tone for a modern twist on the Arabian Night’s vibe.
When I first met Gilles Bosquet, executive chef and culinary visionary behind Ninive, I was immediately drawn to his presence. There’s an ease about him that that exudes warmth. He is humble and relaxed, yet confident, and extremely respectful.
Gilles’ approach to Ninive’s cuisine is rooted in simplicity, and is based on combining “comforting, homey food” within regional gastronomic traditions. With a Middle Eastern and North African menu, Gilles draws inspiration from countries like Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman (to name a few), and admits that his shift to Arabic cuisine was a challenging one. Hard to believe coming from a chef who earned his first Michelin Star at the tender age of thirty.
Born in Mauritius, Gilles came to Dubai in 1999 when he was fresh out of culinary school to work with the One & Only Royal Mirage. His career took him to London, then to France, where he earned a Michelin Star for Auberge à la Bonne Idée. His culinary life after Michelin took a turn when he decided to bow out of fine dining a year after earning the star. Make no mistake, Gilles holds his culinary mastery with the upmost regard. “To be a chef,” he explains, “you need to go a little down the fine dining road. It teaches you a lot about products, techniques, people-wise – then it’s your thing or it’s not. I got my Michelin star when I was thirty years old. I realized that when I got it, what was the next step. For two months, I questioned myself. Do I want two stars, three stars – then I realized it wasn’t my thing. My perception of food was about pleasing people, I wanted to be close to people, more homey food, more generous in terms of taste, of quantity. I want to feel the people and what they want.”
After stints with Gordon Ramsay in Qatar and Hong Kong, Gilles moved back to back to Dubai to join La Cantine in 2016, and would eventually spearhead Ninive. While applying his technical background in fine dining to recreating traditional Arabic and North African recipes, Gilles tried and tested dishes over many months from Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Morocco, and across the region. As soon as he would perfect a dish that had the right balance between comfort and sophistication, it would make it’s way onto the menu. Gilles speaks with great enthusiasm of how home food is where you find the best, most authentic taste, with nothing pretentious on the plate.
After giving me a brief on the beautiful spices found within Arab and North African cuisines, Gilles guided me into his kitchen with the warmth and openness of an old friend. If I could venture a guess, he would welcome me into his home the very same way…
Once in the kitchen, I am greeted by Gilles right hand, chef Ibrahim. The atmosphere is buzzing as Ninive’s team of sous-chefs is busy prepping for dinner service. The team is un-phased by my presence. It’s comfortable, relaxed, and organized. Business as usual.
The first dish on our menu was a Moroccan. Pastilla. A phyllo pastry typically filled with pigeon or seafood, Ninive’s version uses chicken, as per the preferences of their clientele. Gilles prefers to make the pastilla in relatively small portions to preserve the crispness of the pastry – difficult to do if the pastilla is too big. He pulls out the phyllo – cut in a circle and ready to go. I have to say that Gilles is probably the most meticulously organized chef I have ever worked with. A military-style mise-en-place awaited me upon my arrival. Made my job much, much easier.
Ground roasted almonds, cinnamon, and sugar are mixed together and sprinkled all over our pastry to form the base layer of crunch, and the first of our three textural components.
Next comes our chicken – braised in an aromatic liquid before being removed and shredded – is added on top of the almond mixture.
Finally, the chicken’s hot braising liquid is used as the base of the sauce and the third textural element of the dish. Gilles tells me he scrambles eggs into the liquid, a method used to “moisturize” the pastilla. I give it a taste. It’s amazingly aromatic, and I swear I would devour the eggs on their own for breakfast.
We add the scrambled egg “sauce” over the chicken and start to seal our pastry. We must do this quickly, explains Gilles,“ the longer you wait, the more the pastry starts to dry up.” As he demonstrated his technique before I tried my hand at sealing my own, I could see first hand that he was right.
We remove little pockets of air without compressing the pastilla so that each layer shines separately. Onto a hot tray it goes before putting it into the oven. If the tray is cold, says Gilles, the bottom of the pastry will be soggy. Point taken: A wet crust is a definite no-no.
After 7 minutes and an insanely delicious smell permeating through the kitchen, our pastilla is ready. Gilles dusts a little icing sugar over top followed by a touch of cinnamon. He prefers to reduce the sweetness compared to a traditional pastilla while admitting that the first time he made this dish, his Moroccan taste-testers didn’t find it sweet enough. We cut it in four pieces before digging in. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and savory crunchiness. Gorgeous, delicious, and utterly Moroccan.
When I ask Gilles how he develops his recipes for Ninive, he is quick to share his thoughts. “Take classic recipes and adapt them yourself.” He continues to explain how you have to learn and experiment with ways to keep the essence of home cooking while preparing dishes on a restaurant scale (i.e. braising vs. boiling, so on and so forth).
Our next dish is Grilled Chicken served with tabouleh. Inspired by a simple Omani dish, we use a French baby chicken the most “arrogant” chicken you can find, jokes chef. Hopefully, those of you reading will find this funny. The chicken, deboned, flattened, and free of any arrogance, has been gently massaged with za’atar, chili, paprika, and olive oil.
Gilles tosses it over a hot charcoal grill. I could swear he did it with his eyes closed as our chicken almost did a pirouette in mid-air. The flames were fast and furious as they grilled our chicken with lightening speed.
A tabouleh of roughly chopped parsley, tomato, and pomegranate, is tossed in a bowl. “If we chop the parsley too finely,” warns chef, “the juice will come out and our salad will be wet.” We add our lemon juice, olive oil, and a little seasoning before gently spooning the tabouleh over the grilled chicken.
The chicken is portioned just as it would be at the table – cut into pieces and served among friends. The tabouleh, says Gilles, is there to “refresh” the chicken, not to overpower it. And he’s right. I take a bite of the chicken, the fieriness of the grill shines through the tender flesh, while the tabouleh adds a vibrant freshness. It’s simple, delicious, and epitomizes the spirit of the shared table.
Our third and final dish is Fatayer – a pastry filled with ground beef, cinnamon, pine nuts, and raisins. Baked in a pizza oven, the fatayer seems simple enough, and indeed it is. Gilles would show me how he infuses finesse into this humble little pastry.
We dust the counter with flour as chef takes out a thin round of pastry. He cuts small slits around it before spooning on the cooled, spiced meat mixture. I can see the raisins peeking through, all plump and luscious from swirling around the ground beef and veal jus.
Chef pinches the pastry inwards with his fingers. He does this quickly but delicately, while exposing little pockets of meat throughout. It’s at this point that he credits his team (a recurring theme during our conversation) for making Ninive’s pastry far quicker and more efficiently than him.
We put our fatayer onto a parchment-lined hot pan. Straight into the pizza oven it goes. Once done, we remove it from the parchment paper before plating. Gilles spoons a light tomato salsa into the center of our dish. Just as he did with the grilled chicken, he incorporates salsa to add lightness and freshness to the fatayer. Garnished with pine nuts and ruby-red pomegranate seeds, the colors make it look almost festive, while the smell makes it ready to inhale! The approach to this humble dish – cooked in the spirit of comfort food, elevated by the chef, and enjoyed amongst friends – is reflective of the spirit of Ninive.
As we wrapped up our cooking session, Gilles took me to the side, gesturing towards his team, “to be honest with you, the heroes here are the guys – it’s not just because of me. I have an amazing team behind me. It fits in my way of guiding people, they are very loyal and they work very hard. We push them to learn – they are fantastic. We have people from India, Nepal, Philippines, Morocco, Turkey, and Syria. Even if they are not Arabs, they take a lot of pleasure making Arabic food.” It’s a testament to teamwork, and to a chef who empowers others by leading through example.
Just before leaving, I caught a glimpse of the logo above Ninive. It’s written in cuneiform letters – one of the earliest writing systems – and signifies the word “home.” And home is exactly where I felt – within the space, within the food, and within it’s people. As I took one last seat at the bar, I managed to catch that sunset at just the right time. There it was, that glimmer of beauty, and for a fleeting moment in time, I was swept into the tales of One Thousand and One Nights.
Shot on Location at Ninive in Emirates Towers Dubai.
Photography by Tara Atkinson Photography
Special thanks to:
White and Silver Dress: Dulce by Safiya
Red Dress: Eschel
Jewelry – Bil Arabi by Nadine Kanso
Shoes by Christian Louboutin
Hair and Makeup by Maria Doyle
Special thanks to the brilliant team at Ninive and La Cantine du Faubourg