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How a Family-Owned Bistro Became the Best Restaurant in the Middle East

When Mohamad Orfali as a child, his favorite meal was breakfast. In his family home in Aleppo, Syria his grandfather used to make “Treet Bel Laban” — an omelet with meatballs, served over garlic yogurt and eaten with warm bread. “I have a lot of food memories, but I think this is the best of the best,” says Orfali.

Food and family have always been a package deal for Orfali — now more than ever, as he runs a restaurant with his two younger brothers, the bistro Orfali Bros in Dubai . Opened in 2021, the menu pays homage to the Syrian roots and culinary traditions the brothers grew up with, blended with contemporary Arabic and Mediterranean flavors.

A former TV chef, Mohamad is a chef de cuisine and charismatic host, while his brothers, Wassim and Omar both pastry chefs, are responsible for the restaurant’s distinctive desserts. “We talk about food. We love food and we love people who love food,” says Orfali.

It’s not just the brothers who love their food, but also the awards. This month, the bistro just received its first Michelin star, and earlier this year it was named “best restaurant” in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the Michelin list. The World’s 50 Best Restaurants .

“We are so honored by this recognition,” Orfali says of their latest win. The restaurant’s debut on the 2022 50 Best list, just ten months after opening, has helped put the establishment “on the map” with guests traveling from all over the world to sample the brothers’ unusual cuisine, he adds.

“Now Orfali Bros is like a destination for people who love food,” Orfali says. “My reward is when I see people coming back one, two, three, four times.”

One of the signature dishes of the Eclair Umami bistro

A multicultural menu

Orfali left Syria in 2006, moving to Dubai a year later, followed by his brothers. “We started the business as three brothers, but my family is very big now — we are 53 people,” he says, explaining that he considers his team to be an extension of his family.

“Different nationalities, different colors, different languages, different accents. And that’s what I love. That’s the beauty of Orfali Bros. This is how we represent the community, this is how we represent Dubai.”

The multiculturalism in Orfali’s restaurant is reflected throughout the country : The United Arab Emirates is home to 200 nationalities, with over 90% of the population being foreign. Although the Orfali Bros Bistro While grounded in Syrian influences, the establishment offers what Orfali calls “Dubai Cuisine” — an adjustment of global culinary traditions to suit an international palate, to allow people of different backgrounds and tastes to enjoy a meal together.

He adds that the menu is not “international cuisine,” which often “kills the identity” of his dishes, Orfali says. Many of the menu ideas at Orfali Bros come from their childhood experiences or family cooking. using traditional ingredients but “reconstructed in a different way,” says Orfali.

For example, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, ironically named “Guess What?”, combines a Lebanese fattoush salad, Greek salad and gazpacho (a cold Spanish soup) into one dish. The “shish barak a la gyoza,” a sujuk oil-soaked recipe inspired by the spicy flavors of Sichuan, takes an Asian twist on the traditional Levantine meat dumpling.

“We love to surprise people — for me, surprises create memories,” says Orfali.

Orfali and his two younger brothers lived, worked and studied in several countries before settling in Dubai . The dishes, in fact, communicate this multiculturalism: a nostalgia for home, but the joy of experiencing new surroundings.

“I believe that food doesn’t belong to a territory or a map, but to human beings. There are many ingredients that travel around the world because they were taken from one area to another,” he says. “Orfali Bros, for us, is a platform to explore something new.”

peculiar combination of ingredients

A “flourishing” gastronomic scene

Dubai’s culinary scene has until recently been dominated by celebrity chefs and international franchises. Now, independent restaurants are “flourishing” says Samantha Wood, founder of UAE restaurant review site FooDiva and a Dubai resident for 25 years.

Chef-led concepts like Orfali Bros Bistro exemplify this idea: “Mohamad (Orfali) is very hands-on, always on the go or involved in storytelling,” she says, adding that the “little neighborhood treasure” offers “innovative but flavorful cuisine.”

O Locavore movement is growing in Dubai — triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has disrupted global trade — which is encouraging the consumption of products and ingredients from the UAE. Wood also says that many independent restaurants have incorporated the eating behavior into their menus.

For Samantha, “Dubai Cuisine” conjures up the idea of ​​a “multicultural melting pot of every cuisine under the sun” — though she says Orfali Bros Bistro sets itself apart from typical fusion cuisine “by showcasing culinary influences from Syria and our regional neighbors in a modern way and, wherever possible, using local ingredients.”

Orfali Bros isn’t the only one pushing the boundaries of fusion food: restaurants Jun’s and Chez Wam also “celebrate an innovative mix of cultures and cuisines,” adds Wood.

For Orfali, the peculiar combination of ingredients or the unusual presentation makes the storytelling element of your food even more important. “If guests don’t understand our story, then they look at the dish from a different perspective,” he says. “Food is a journey — it’s my journey, my brothers’ journey, and the team’s journey.”

The success of Orfali Bros Bistro inspired the trio to embark on a second project called “Three Bros”, a burger joint next to the current restaurant . Here, diners can order the bistro’s famous “OB cheeseburger” — a wagyu beef patty on a Hokkaido bun with a secret sauce, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions — along with pide, a stuffed Turkish flatbread, which will be removed from the Orfali Bros menu and replaced with more innovative, unusual and equally delicious dishes, he adds.

Whether the brothers are slinging burgers or deconstructing their culinary heritage, family is the common thread that runs through their cooking.

“We build a relationship between ourselves and our guests and make it a family,” Orfali explains. “It’s not about running a family business — people who come to us feel at home, like they’re part of the family.”

Source: CNN Brasil

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