When does a restaurant become a home? The very name of Bait Maryam, Palestinian chef Salam Dakkak’s restaurant, answers it all. It is the home – Bait, in Arabic – of Maryam, the chef’s mother and the inspiration behind the restaurant, nestled in Dubai’s JLT district. The place is infused with Maryam’s spirit, from its decoration, to its warm sense of hospitality, to, of course, its food. Bait Maryam indee offers authentic Levant cuisine, culling from the shared culinary traditions of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Jordan, elevating fresh and seasonal products. Here, says Nada Darraj, the chef’s daughter, “The way we cook is the way our grandmothers and our ancestors used to cook. It’s recipes dating back centuries.”
Yet, some of Bait Maryam’s most popular highlights are Dakkak’s original creations, such as her famous fattet musakhan, where deliciously tender shreds of chicken and onions bathe in garlic-infused yogurt, topped with fried bread, or her take on fried kebbe, sublimated with tangy pomegranate molasses and tamarind sauce. Gourmet palates flock to the restaurant for its daily specials, which include the lamb-based Mansaf al Musakhan, the upside-down rice and meat dish Maklube, and the widly sought-after Wednesday lunchtime stuffed wine leaves.
The restaurant, which seats 45 guests indoors and 80 outdoors, retains the intimacy of Middle Eastern grandmothers’ homes. The airy, luminous, space is entirely decorated with vintage elements taken from ancient Levantine houses – including Maryam’s. There are old shutters, lace curtains, color-washed wooden chairs and tables, retro lamps, cupboards reminiscent of ancestral Levantine pantries, fabrics with dainty flower motifs, and even Maryam’s own nineteen-forties sewing machine. The entrance seating area truly feels like a living room, with plush couches and armchairs: this is where chef Salam is known to greet her extended family of customers.
Despite years of cooking experience, Chef Salam was new to the restaurant scene when she opened Bait Maryam in June 2017. Earlier, she had run a cooking studio and regularly appeared on Saudi television, and, after some time in the United States, she settled in Dubai, where the Bait Maryam concept was born. “At the beginning,” Darraj says, “we thought it was impossible to serve home-style food in a restaurant.” Yet, success was immediate. Bait Maryam has won numerous prizes, including the JLT dining awards’ Best Middle Eastern Restaurant. But its wide embrace is better measured online, by the restaurant’s thousands of glowing reviews and dedicated followers. Chef Salam regularly cooks in front of her staggering 182,000 Instagram fans, passionately sharing countless tastes and flavors.
Thanks to social media buzz, but mostly to word of mouth – including that of daily regulars –– Bait Maryam rose to prominence within the cutthroat Dubai restaurant industry. More important, it filled a gap in the local dining scene, by giving a home to Dubai’s expats and young professionals who live alone, and might not know how to or have the time to cook. Today, its clientele is in majority Emirati, but also counts Middle Easterners, Europeans, Americans and Indians, a reflection of the city’s cultural melting pot.
Nothing seemingly stops Chef Salam, who’s behind the stove every day of the week. Earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the restaurant ran on deliveries at a frantic pace. Today, as social distancing rules limit the space’s capacity, she now faces another challenge: accommodating the endless waiting lists of enthusiastic diners, impatient to experience her delectable authentic meals.