Everything is bigger in America, they say. Bennigan’s, an American chain of Irish-themed restaurants which opened its first UAE outlet in Downtown Dubai this week, is big in every way, from steaks to milkshakes to the 250-seater restaurant itself.
Just don’t expect Irish classics at the restaurant, located in the new swathe of eateries on Mohammad Bin Rashid Boulevard (formerly Emaar Boulevard). They’re not serving the beverages common in the Emerald Isle or plates of steaming Irish stew, but the American-style steaks, salads and sandwiches that you’ll find at their competitors such as Cheesecake Factory and Chili’s. The Irish angle is in the hospitality, rather than the black stuff, says Eisa Ataya, general manager of the restaurant’s operator Dynamic Hospitality.
“We were looking for an American brand, and we like their approach — ‘generous pours, generous portions’”. No, there is no colcannan, boiled beef or sausages.
“We want to have a higher level of service than others,” said Ataya, “and a very competitive price. We want to be generous in our value.”
Expect beef ribs, a towering double-patty, double-bun burger called the Big Irish, steaks (cut to order by a chef formerly of The Butcher Shop and Grill — you can order an off-menu size if you ask nicely) and American-style salads such as the Kilkenny Country Chicken Salad.
This dish was served to me as I chatted to Ataya on Monday, when I requested one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. I was surprised to get a salad — iceberg lettuce, shredded cabbage, topped with fried chicken chunks, shredded egg and cheese. It was tasty and filling, with a tangy twist from the honey-mustard dressing. But… salad?
Turns out this dish is something people travel for. At the next table was a mum and daughter, American expats who had been awaiting the Bennigan’s opening in order to get a bowlful of the salad. Chicago-born Susan and Elizabeth were among the first customers in the restaurant this week, and gave the thumbs-up to the baked potato soup: “Better than at home,” said Susan, who explained that she’s a Bennigan’s fan because it’s “comfort food in a comfortable setting, and it’s consistent”. (The Dubai resident shared her other American favourites in town: Potbelly, a Chicago import that she says is as good as home, and Cheesecake Factory, where the meatloaf is good, but the eggrolls don’t live up to the US version.)
Everything else on the menu is exactly what you’d expect from a US family restaurant — tastes fine, and will please most people in the party. Sandwiches are apparently a big draw, with the Monte Christo a particular speciality (that I was not brought). It’s a deep-fried (turkey) ham-and-cheese sarnie. I had the Irish Dip, Bennigan’s version of the popular sandwich called a French Dip, which to add to the international confusion is not French but American. It was also tasty — slices of roast beef on a long, soft roll topped with lurid orange cheese and crispy onions, with a side of meat “jus” in which to, well, dip. Portions of all these are huge — please share! and save your arteries — but good value, with salads in the Dh30-40 mark, burgers nudging Dh40-50. Steaks go up to Dh160 for a 20oz t-bone.
Khalid Haidar, the executive chef, has adapted the menu to UAE customers’ taste, with a significant number being Bennigan’s UAE originals, such as a Mediterranean salad of rocket, halloumi, tomatoes and mint, or grilled lamb chops; having said that, if you are after Arabic, there’s a pretty (and packed) outlet of Leila next door worth checking out.
There’s more to come from Dynamic Hospitality, the company behind Bennigan’s in the UAE. Opening this spring is La Postreria, a Spanish lounge-cafe at Souk Al Bahar, with more outlets to follow; and Earth Fruits Yohurt, a US frozen yogurt brand, which will open next door to the Bennigan’s in Dubai Mall, on the lower ground floor. La Postreria will serve tapas-style dishes with a Mediterranean flavour, as well as pastries and shisha, and is an all-day, all-night venue. Earth Fruits takes frozen yogurt beyond the usual plain and pomegranate flavours, bridging the gap between yogurt shops and places like Cold Stone Creamery. Flavours at the US outlets include Amazon dark chocolate, birthday cake, espresso, sea salt caramel pretzel and wild strawberry.