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Burj Al Arab hotel and Burj Khalifa, Dubai, UAE

High and low

A Tale of Two Restaurants

Dining at Dubai’s most memorable eateries—one half a mile in the sky, the other under water.

What worried me was the elevator. I was in Dubai, and I was determined to eat at At.mosphere in the Burj Khalifa, a much-touted restaurant in the tallest building in the world. I’m not afraid of heights, but. Would my stomach make it to the 122nd floor?

The goal of the “Gulf Tiger”—Dubai’s rapid economic growth—has, since its inception, been to bring on the razzmatazz.

The city’s contemporary architecture boom began in earnest around 1980 with the Dubai World Trade Center, completed in 1979 by British architect John R. Harris. But it was the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, and one of the most unusual, the Burj Al Arab, that grabbed world headlines. They both have restaurants—the first at the top of the world, the second surrounded by an aquarium.

Burj Khalifa, left, and Burj Al Arab, right in Dubai UAE
At.mosphere looks out from the 122nd floor of Burj Khalifa, at left, built in 2009 by the designers of the Sears Tower in Chicago. L'Olivio is surrounded by an aquarium, and located at the bottom of the Burj Al Arab hotel, at right, which sits on an artificial island. Photo by FoggyImages/Getty Images

At.mosphere in the Burj Khalifa is on the 122nd floor—a mere 40 floors from the very top. The tower (completed in 2009 and created by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—the same firm that designed the Sears Tower in Chicago), is 829 meters from top to bottom (just over half a mile). Built to garner international attention and attract investment, it was Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (ruler of Dubai)’s baby, and was originally known as the Burj Dubai—until Dubai had to turn to neighboring Abu Dhabi for a cash infusion to refinance their debt, which had spiraled out of control during the 2008 recession. In 2010, the building was renamed in honor of Abu Dhabi’s ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

My fears about the elevator were misplaced; we were whizzed up to the restaurant in less than two minutes. The decor—lots of dark green and nautical round peep holes—was attractive in a crested-velvet-slipper kind of way. Gold sculptures and chandeliers announced that you were in a monument to the modern gilded age. 

We admired the long runway of sparkling lights that Dubai at night offers, although we tried not to look down as we ate.

Our table was by the window and we admired the long runway of sparkling lights that Dubai at night offers, although we tried not to look down as we ate. (Actually, the windows could have used a clean, but no doubt window washing at that height presents some challenges.) The food was airport lounge quality at its best. I had a chicken roulade and my husband, Hugh, ate tuna tartare and a rather stringy looking duck confit. You do not come to At.mosphere for its cuisine.

Window views from the interior of At.mosphere restaurant, Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Tables by the floor-to-ceiling windows offer the kind of views you’d expect from the tallest building in the world. Photo courtesy of At.mosphere
Interior of At.mosphere restaurant, Burj Khalifa, Dubai
At.mosphere’s decor is attractive in a crested-velvet-slipper kind of way. Photo courtesy of At.mosphere
The entrance to At.mosphere restaurant, Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Gold sculptures and chandeliers announce that you are in a monument to the modern gilded age. Photo courtesy of At.mosphere

After the journey up a skyscraper, we took a dive, of sorts—to the bottom of the Burj Al Arab. Built in 1999 in the shape of a J-Class spinnaker sail, this “seven star” hotel sits on a man-made island of reclaimed sand. Its helipad has been alternately used as a race car track, a boxing ring, a tennis court, and as the launch point for the highest kite surfing jump in history. But the main attraction is a spectacular southern Italian restaurant, L’Olivo, which is adjacent to a 10 million-liter aquarium containing about 140 species of fish—one of the largest suspended aquariums in the world.  

Ushered into a blue velvet waiting room, with small, round wooden tables and orchids, we were offered an aperitivo (Italian pre-dinner drink) before heading to the main attraction. You enter the restaurant through an enormous round tunnel with gold-covered edges and clear cut-outs of the coral and fish swimming overhead.

The effect of the reflected surfaces was a giddy sense that you, too, were in the swim.

The restaurant itself is circular, with walls carved in silver waves and a mirrored ceiling. The effect of the reflected surfaces was a giddy sense that you, too, were in the swim. A giant green neon eel, mouth gaping in what seemed like a silent lecture to patrons, stopped by before darting off, to be replaced by a curious sting ray, which Hugh eyed warily (there had been a certain husband-vs-sting ray incident in Costa Rica).

Then came a Napoleon fish—which practices “sequential hermaphroditism” according to Google, meaning it changes sex as needed (an inspiration to us all). Parrot fish, zebra fish, and a couple of sharks who circled the top of the bowl swam by next, followed by my personal favorite—the unicorn fish, whose snout lurches right out from the front of its face and seems more in keeping with that of a lugubrious tax inspector than a unicorn.

The entrance to L'Olivo restaurant, Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai, UAE
Daisy’s husband, Hugh, at the entrance to L’Olivo—a tunnel with gold-covered edges and clear cut-outs revealing the coral and fish swimming overhead. Photo by Daisy Prince
Daisy Prince drinking a George Sour signature Al Mahara cocktail at L'Olivo restaurant, Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai, UAE
Daisy enjoying one of L’Olivo’s signature Al Mahara cocktails, a George Sour: Tanqueray gin, lime, olive oil, egg white, and basil leaves. Photo by Hugh Chisholm
Daisy Prince looking at the fish swimming in the aquarium surrounding L'Olivo restaurant, Burj Al Arab hotel, Dubai, UAE
The 10 million-liter aquarium contains about 140 species of fish—one of the largest suspended aquariums in the world. Eels, sting rays, unicorn fish, and sharks all floated by during dinner. Photo by Hugh Chisholm

The biggest surprise? In a place that seemed like it could be just another tourist attraction, the food was delicious. My cocktail of lime, gin, olive oil and basil served in a glass shaped like a puffer fish was like a boozy salad (which tastes better than it sounds). 

Before our first course, we were treated to bread presented on an enormous trolley with so many signature olive oils it was almost impossible to choose. I went for a spicy oil  with a rosemary focaccia. 

We were a little nervous about the prospect of our orders. Will it be like eating a steak while cows are leaning over the fence mooing at you? But all worries were shunted aside as we both dug into the signature dish of tagliolini and lobster so light and fresh it could have been made in Italy and flown in from Tuscany. Our main course, spigola (sea bass) was served on tiny stones smoked with cherry wood. The white wine was crisp and refreshing and we dined in a happy haze, somewhat hypnotized by our aquatic companions. 

Dubai’s detractors may say that it’s a city that sprang only recently from the sand but what they’ve done in the past 30 years is as startling and miraculous as a perfect tagliolini under the sea. 

Hero photo of Burj Khalifa and Burj Al Arab by Armin Rodler CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED via Flickr

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