Bahrain – the land of two seas. Thirty-three islands, 5,000 years of history tracing back to the Dilmun civilisation, and a modern-day gastronomic centre of the Gulf. Hyperbole much? Not so.
While nearby Dubai and my temporary home Doha steal headlines for glitz and glitter, it’s Bahrain that artfully blends long-embraced traditions with up-to-the-moment trends in the food world, resulting in a restaurant scene bursting with options and allure so disproportionate to the size of this compact nation.
I’m on a mission to eat my way through Bahrain in one day – an epicurean spree focusing on some of the most delicious landmarks. Hang on: it’s going to be one buckle-bursting ride.
Emmawash Traditional Restaurant
85 Budaiya Highway, Muqaba (1730 9030, daily 6a-1p; 7p-11p)
Start the day with a traditional Bahraini breakfast. Emmawash is anything but flash – its walls are covered with fan-generated graffiti, and the menu is a two-sided order form no larger than an Android phone. Yet the food is anything but ordinary. The lentils daal and beans with parsley are simple, honest-to-goodness plates yearning to be mopped up with bread. For something truly unexpected, order the mahiawa with cheese. This fermented fish paste tastes like the cousin of an anchovy spread and is lightly smeared between a flat bread sandwich with melted cheese. A container of extra mahiawa for dipping punches up the flavour enjoyed in Bahraini households for generations.
Bahraini Farmers Market
Budaiya Garden (Saturdays 8a-noon, seasonal)
While farmers’ markets in the West celebrate the artisanal, here it’s all about going back to roots. Stall after stall offers locally grown, sun-drenched produce at unbelievable prices. In a separate area replete with picnic tables, food stalls hawk out popular fare such as deep-fried samboosah pastries and the Maghrebi egg dish shakshouka. One highlight is a stand selling home-cooked Gulf dishes including balaleet, a sweet vermicelli dish with cardamom and eggs, and chickpea balilah, a light stew with mustard seeds and onions. Amazing what half a Dinar buys you here!
Building 191, Road 3931, Block 338 (1700 7404, daily 8a-2a)
No matter how you slice it, Block 338 is just plain cool. The semi-pedestrianised restaurant enclave in the neighbourhood of Adilya pulsates with global gastronomy in designer buildings. After moseying around, I end up in Café Amsterdam. This complex of gastropubs and dining rooms seems determined to put Dutch food on the map. I could wax poetic about the quinoa salad with Gouda croquettes or the deeply comforting appelmoes of mashed potato and apple sauce. But the one to try is the scallop ceviche… firm and crunchy, its tang tempered by spherified caviars of olive oil and little bursts of rocoto pepper sauce, served in a vial to drizzle at your leisure.
The Westin Bahrain City Centre (1717 1000, daily)
To escape the heat, I seek refuge in City Centre. And as teatime rolls around, I go sniffing for scones. That’s when I encounter T-Spoon, the whimsical sounding café of The Westin with a façade to the mall shops. While many patrons tuck into the towering afternoon tea set, I zero in on the scones: warm and golden, speckled with raisins and cloaked in the magnificent scent of butter. They yield easily to the knife and gleefully take on lashings of clotted cream, homemade jam and a pleasing, tangy lemon curd. Perfect with a cup of tea.
CUT Bar & Lounge
Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay (1711 5000, Mon-Sat noon-2a; Sun 5p-2a)
As the sun dips, the newly minted, Four Seasons Hotel calls out with exuberance and majesty. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck lends his name to three dining havens here. CUT Bar & Lounge is an extension of his renowned steakhouse brand and an elegant spot to unwind over drinks and light bites. Don’t miss the jumbo lump crab roll… done in the style of a Maine lobster roll with mayo and chives and stuffed into butter-soaked, toasted bread. Lightly seasoned for the delicate flavour of crab to shine through, the dish costs a pretty penny but is luxurious to the last crumb.
The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa (1758 0000, daily noon-3p, 7p-11:30p)
It may be decades old, yet The Ritz-Carlton continues to be a benchmark in Bahrain’s dining scene. Following a revamp this year, the Italian restaurant Primavera is bristling with a new menu designed by Michelin-star chef Oliver Glowig. The pastas are faultless. The beef fillet Rossini style with foie gras would stand should-to-shoulder with the city’s finest steaks. And the dish that shines brightest is the tuna carpaccio with basil ice cream and fresh flowers. It is the edible emblem of this contemporary trattoria, with every bite capturing the freshness and lightness of spring.
Bab Al Bahrain Mall (3962 2882, daily 8a-11p)
The day ends full circle with a proud Bahraini tradition. Naseef Café has been around since 1920 (though the present location is quite new). Owner Ameena Naseef is the granddaughter of the café’s founder, and she gladly shares tales of the early days while offering a taste of the velvety mango ice cream, which is the cornerstone of this thriving business. I personally prefer the pomegranate, savouring each mouthful and dreaming of what other delights I could have next time… with 48 hours in Bahrain.
** A version of this article appeared in Time Out Bahrain & Time Out Doha **