Al Bait Sharjah is the Home of the Emirati
Welcome home to Al Bait! As someone who has been living in hotels for the past five years, averaging five countries a month, Al Bait was a breath of fresh air. There are excellent hotels, and then there are outstanding hotels. Al Bait Sharjah is a unique place that perfectly weaves a story of luxury and culture, bringing history to life while maintaining an air of pure luxury with its 53 rooms. The rooms, the restaurants, and all the rest are incorporated into heritage buildings newly protected by UNESCO.
The arrival was smooth and seamless, so unlike any traditional hotel. I never saw a front desk or reception or suitcases waiting in corners. I was ushered into a room with windows and seats along a wall with pillows and greeted by a cold towel, lavender and silver drink, and chocolates by Valrhona. Indeed, very different than the usual mango juice or champagne.
Led to my room, I think I will never find the way back! There are so many little alleyways. Knowing that people used to live in these buildings, makes me feel like I am a part of a bigger history. The buildings are all a light tan color so while you’re taking time finding the next building, you will be Instagramable no matter what you happen to have packed!
My room was something else— straight out of a medieval Middle Eastern fairytale! All golden tan with touches of reds and the occasional purple. The bed was huge and high off the ground, the pillows inviting, and the desk practical. I wandered into the bathroom and was shocked with outright glee! Trust me when I say the exclamation was warranted. The bronze bathtub in the middle of this bathroom (that was bigger than my bedroom when I was a teenager) had me so excited for a pre-bedtime bath. Can we fast forward through the day to the time I could relax in the warm waters?!
My love affair with the bathtub had to wait, though. There was much to see and do on my first day at Al Bait Sharjah.
Did you know that according to the star rating of hotels, a hotel may not be given a 5-star rating if the said hotel does not have a spa? While a hotel may be out of this world, it will not be granted five stars without that attached spa. The spa at Al Bait was even better than I expected. I’m sure we’ve all been at a 5-star hotel before and looked forward to an afternoon massage only to come to the understanding that the people at the spa have no idea what they’re doing.
I was treated to a Hamman treatment by a lovely Indonesian attendant. She was quiet but sweet, and not once made me feel uncomfortable. Respect in a setting like that is paramount, and the spa aced it! Separate entrances for men and women— even inside the spa—ensures total privacy and respect.
This was not the first time I’d had a Hamman treatment, but it was the most luxurious. The first step was a detox juice given to me in the waiting area while I filled out a form. It’s vital to be hydrated during such treatments. Next, I was shown into a room with the most massive slab of marble I’ve seen outside of Italy. I was supposed to lay on top. I lifted myself onto the heated piece and listened to the sound of the waterfall feature just opposite my head. Such a soothing sound. I was scrubbed with Himalayan salts, then hosed down. I either felt like a dog or royalty. Considering the setting, I preferred to think like a queen. A mud body mask followed with some more water and then 5 minutes in the sauna. I’m not a massive fan of saunas because I get bored quickly, so I requested only the obligatory five minutes. (I could have stayed in there as long as I wished.)
The finishing touches of the Hamman experience were a massage (emphasis on my poor feet, please) and a mint tea in the Resting Lounge. What is a resting lounge? A small room with overstuffed pillows and little tea tables where you can either check your social media or stare at the ceiling and wonder to yourself how it’s possible to keep this feeling of relaxation with you always. I opted to head to my room immediately after the massage so I could try out the shower in my room. It did not disappoint. I readied myself for dinner and headed downstairs. On my way, I happened upon the pool that was below my room before heading to the Arabic Restaurant. I did not have time to lounge by the pool on this trip, but it will be heavily featured on my next one!
Another stop before dinner was the library. Was I on a tour or just utterly lost? Who knows. The library was a beautifully renovated space with clean white built-in bookshelves and backgammon and chess boards on tables. If only I had brought someone to enjoy the backgammon with! But it was for the best because the space was being used for government meetings all day so I couldn't hang out there anyway. The cigar room after dinner was the place to be that night, anyway! But that’s another story.
Speaking about stories. Not only is the library the setting of storybooks but also a mini-museum on life in Sharjah years ago. This particular building had belonged to the Al-Midfa family. The head of the family started the first newspaper in the area, and people would gather outside his house to hear the latest news. The library was also recently used for a couple's fairy tale wedding on the journey to start their own story. I heard the room was decked out in flowers with a Shakespeare theme. So dreamy.
Shall I get to dinner now? Yes, the wandering has ended for now as I neared the Arabic Restaurant. I entered a courtyard with lit up trees and comfy seating but opted indoors that night for the heat was a bit much. The indoor dining area did not disappoint, though. The waiter greeted and seated me. News has not yet gotten out that this restaurant has the best lamb ever made, so it was a bit empty. Emad, my waiter was with me every moment regaling me with stories about Egypt. I lived in Egypt for a year, so we had much to discuss while he ran back and forth to the kitchen for me.
Emad asked me what I would like to order. I brazenly said, “All of it”. The diet did not happen that week. He brought me dish after dish. First, the Muhamra Mille-Feuille which was wholly unexpected but surprisingly delicious for a one-bite course. The spicy flavor came through but not overbearingly.
The hot and cold mezzeh followed with traditional Emirati dishes, even I had not tasted before. There was, of course, the obligatory hummus, Fattoush, falafel and tahini, and muhammara but the new dishes on the scene for me were the potato harra (my favorite recipe for the course) and the chicken liver marinated in pomegranate molasses. I loved the mix of tradition with the artistic touches all around.
Oh! And the bread! How could I forget the bread? There were three different types! The Turkish bread was a bit sweet, the Arabic pita bread was the staple, and the thicker Morrocan dough was puffed to absorb all the fantastic sauces that were to come with the next course of chicken and lamb tagine. Yes, that’s right; I had two main dishes. I wonder how Emad didn’t have to roll me out the door. That lamb tagine melts in your mouth…
In between dinner and dessert, I needed a minute. I got up and looked around the dining room. The restaurant was used as a house before, so there was another courtyard inside the restaurant for diners as well. A separate dining area with a long dining table with high backed chairs all designed with privacy in mind. Before the official opening of the hotel there was a dinner held in the Arabic Restaurant. In attendance were members of families who used to live in the compound so they could judge whether or not they had kept the vibe alive. They must have done the job well because the Ruler of Sharjah was the guest of honor. It’s customary for royalty not to eat in public places, but this is where Al Bait differs from any other hotel. It’s not just a reception with rooms and a pool, it was home to families, and now it’s home to us. The head of the Royal family of Sharjah had not just one helping at dinner, but two. I told you the lamb was worth it.
On the other side of the restaurant is an area with booths. I say the word booth for lack of a better word. Imagine a private area for dining where you and your wives can have an intimate dinner; where you and your girlfriends can take off your niqab and enjoy your food whilst keeping your standards of modesty (female waitresses can be requested for such an occasion, and the booths can be completely hidden from the other diners). This is luxury and feeling cared for and attended to duly.
Back to the food. I was served a concoction called a snow egg that was recommended. It is a vanilla custard with raspberry sauce with a poached meringue around a ball of cactus ice cream. It was very creamy, but the honey crackle served a good crunch. I’m sure it took the pastry chef hours to assemble.
After dinner and proper admiration for the draping curtains in the restaurant, I head up to my room where there is a surprise waiting for me. I see the turndown service on my bed and the slippers on the floor waiting for my now relaxed feet, but I also hear music. I turn towards the bathroom to see a record player. The record player was not there earlier, I assure you. I would have mentioned it, trust me. You don’t just miss a phonograph playing Queen.
But there it was. The record was swirling around as I took a boomerang for an insta worthy story. So the scene is set. The lights are low, the epic notes are playing, and that’s when I see the bathtub. Remember the bath? This time it is full of warm water with actual rose petals floating around nonchalantly. They’re rose petals; after all, they belong in a bathtub to accompany the bath salts, surely.
I got into that bathtub faster than I would have jumped at the chance to go for a joyride in a Huracan. (Maybe not as fast as if a Rolls Royce Phantom with a cognac interior was being offered, but it was not being delivered. Neither was the Huracan, but I’m trying to convey my feelings for this bronze bathtub and my pure adoration for the Rolls-Royce brand.)
I listened to that music and enjoyed the sight of the petals floating so much. If I hadn’t just had a delicious dinner and a 90-minute spa experience I’m sure my worries would have drifted away.
After the tub experience, I decided to get lost again downstairs and head to the cigar room to meet a new friend. We chatted, smoked a cigar and wholeheartedly agreed that we would have to come back to the hotel again in the winter months to enjoy the courtyards scattered across the property.
Off I went to bed. Fully relaxed, ready to dream about the sort of adventures that were to occur the next day.
Breakfast was luckily in the restaurant directly below my room, so finding the place was not an issue. I awoke early and well-rested due to the fluffiness of said pillows and comforter. I wanted to take advantage of my stay so an alarm was set and I was dressed and ready to go on time. Breakfast is served from 6 am till 11 am so there is no rush, but this is the type of place where you may want to take advantage of a chance for a second breakfast and did I mention there is a state-of-the-art gym on the premises? You may want to take advantage of that as well, just in case you’re one of “those” people.
The restaurant featured a breakfast menu of basically anything you could want, and I’m positive if you had a special request, they would be more than happy to accommodate you. I ordered fruit and pastry plates along with pancakes that were a perfect combination of a sweet Russian crepe and the airy lightness of the American pancake. (Perfection, honestly.) And because all of that was not enough I had to taste the faux bacon and the scrambled eggs made with truffle oil. (It’s truly a wonder I haven’t keeled over from diabetes from this trip alone.)
After breakfast, I met the chefs. We were all going to embark on a journey together. Al Bait Sharjah has just launched a “Follow the Chef” journey for the foodie. Yes, sometimes restaurants have a chef's table where you can sit and watch the chefs as they cook, but this is entirely different. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about our obvious favorite thing— food. So how does this journey work? We talked about my favorite foods and came up with a menu together. Chef Ammouri suggested a rice and fish dish, but I was not too fond of the whitefish he suggested so we changed it to salmon, and I was happy. Then Chef Rimpa Shill came up with an ice cream-based dessert with raspberries. But I’m not a fan of raspberries, so we switched it to strawberries, and all was right with the world again.
After we decided on the menu, we all piled into the Mercedes waiting out front and went on a field trip to the Jubail Market in Sharjah to buy all fresh ingredients. Along the way, Chef Ammouri gave me tips on how to pick out certain vegetables, and it was enjoyable to see the different kinds of seafood on display.
Once we found all we needed for our menu, we got back in the car and headed back to the hotels’ kitchens. The first stop was the pastry kitchen because the frozen desert would take longer to prepare and set than the fish, rice, and salad Chef Ammouri was in charge of.
It felt nice to be back in the kitchen. I attended culinary school back in the day, so it was nice to be reminded of all the skills I no longer use. And of course, it was refreshing to see the chefs in their natural habitat, doing what they do best.
I find it very interesting how the overall theme of the hotel is heritage, and yet the chefs are very inventive when it comes to food. As long as the overall theme is Arabic, they let the chefs follow their artistic ideas. Chef Ammouri told me they served sushi on the menu a little while ago but to make it Arabic they made it with couscous instead of rice. Inventive, and it sounds delicious. I may have to try that one at home myself.
After an hour of browning sugar and folding caramel into strawberry ice cream, we moved to the central kitchen to chop vegetables and learn why Basmati rice is the best rice of them all. (Hint: because it just is. Deal with it.) Other than being a foodie, I enjoyed spending time in the kitchen with Chef Ammouri. He makes spending time on your feet in a kitchen fun! A quick quip is never very far away!
We flambeed, we sautéed, we boiled, and then we sat down to a feast. The menu was fresh and light until it came to dessert. On our plates were a rucola salad wrapped in thin slices of eggplant topped with garlic aioli and white fig balsamic pearls. A salmon fillet with saffron and rosewater rice with a tomato and vegetable sauce. The rice was given a smokey flavor with a fantastic trick using charcoal. (Check our Instagram story archives to see what Chef Ammouri taught me.)
Dessert was plated beautifully, almost looked like a painting I would hang on the wall. It was called a Strawberry Burst. It lived up to its name in every way. There were the strawberry and caramel ice cream in a chocolate sphere (made of 40% cocoa) with a strawberry reduction with thyme, rosemary, and lemon juice. And the ever-present gold leaf flakes to top it all off. (Chef Ammouri’s favorite part of the desert.)
So there’s something I’ve avoided telling you. Al Bait is in Sharjah, and you know what that means… no alcohol in this very conservative Emirate. (Dubai, the party Emirate is a quick 20-minute drive away if you feel so inclined.) So there you have it, a dry state… but the beautiful people at Al Bait have come up with a solution. They have a healthy stock of non-alcoholic wines that are low in sugar, sulfate-free, and halal certified. So if you’d like to toast to an occasion have no fear, there is a bubbly available!
The culinary journey with Al Bait came to an end with the late lunch. Or did it? I can’t believe there is more food to talk about! But first, let’s go for another stroll to the front of the resort opposite the corniche. There is a jewelry shop featuring Emirati jewelry designers where they can show off their fantastic work in an authentic setting.
And what do you think is next to the jewelry shop? An ice cream shop to be sure. There are many flavors, but I only had a spoonful of a few. (Chalas! Enough sugar!) The honey ice cream with a honey crackle tastes like a Lotus Biscuit. The Charcoal ice cream and gold leaf have a smokey flavor. The camel milk chocolate and saffron pulled like gum. The Arabic mastika with rose petals and pistachio was precisely what you would think Arabic ice cream would taste like with the quintessential Arabic flavors. The French vanilla with a mini meringue topper was a sweet little treat, and the strawberry caramel was my favorite due to its “simplicity.”
With the last bite of ice cream, my stay at Al Bait was over, and my diet started. I had never been to Sharjah before my visit with Al Bait, but I learned that they are just as innovative as Dubai with their indoor air-conditioned marketplace. I also learned the most crucial thing they yearn to protect is their heritage, their family, their home.
I know a lot of people may say staying at a place that feels like home sounds boring. To them, I reply, "You haven't pressed the 'sweets' button on the phone in your room. You'll be pleasantly surprised".