Conjured from desert sands through nothing but willpower and well-located real estate, Dubai is a city unlike any other. Three and a half million people live a glimmering fever dream of reflective glass, stainless steel, and stone taken to wild extremes: the tallest building, the biggest mall, the deepest pool, the largest picture frame, the most expansive performing fountain, the most audacious artificial islands.
Add to this mix nearly 17 million annual visitors (pre-COVID), and you have a playground where anything seems possible. The flash in Dubai is unparalleled, as hypercars speed down 14-lane highways lit with glowing LEDs while helicopters twirl overhead like dragonflies among massive, fantastical skyscrapers.
All of this might seem inimical to a down-to-earth and sustainable movement like veganism, but if you know where to look, there are some beautiful plant oases here, too.
Fresh, organic food in the desert
I began my exploration not far from the Dubai Marina—a fantasyland of ostentatious blue glass and steel towering over a harbor full of luxury yachts (it’s the backdrop for millions of Instagram posts). In a relatively quiet neighborhood of artificial lakes and manicured greenery, I found Planet Terra, a cleanly stylish vegan restaurant.
Co-founder George Kinj only opened Planet Terra at the start of 2022, but his dedication to freshness and quality quickly attracted a legion of dedicated fans. “Every time people eat here, they become regulars,” he says.
I came for brunch and fell in love with Planet Terra’s chickpea omelette. It’s a warm and fluffy chickpea round nestled beneath a veritable food forest of delicate sprouts, roasted cherry tomatoes, crispy kale, and tangy dollops of cashew cheese drizzled with balsamic glaze. Sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and a few pine nuts, it all comes together for a savory, satisfying bite with varied textures and flavors playing off one another.
In a region nearly devoid of farmland, Planet Terra manages to be completely organic, with astonishingly fresh produce. The menu is well-rounded, and includes everything from matcha pancakes loaded with a mound of whipped coconut cream for breakfast, to papaya-carrot-avocado salad with housemade black seaweed caviar for lunch, to Levantine Aubergine Fatteh with roasted eggplant on crispy Middle Eastern bread finished with vegan ghee-glazed almonds and pomegranate for dinner.
I ended my visit with some of the restaurant’s exceptional cakes. The passion fruit cheesecake featured creamy, tangy cashew-coconut filling topped with a shimmering passion fruit gel studded with pretty black seeds. It was lightly sweet and fragrant with a deep creaminess.
Kinj explained to me that his goal is for Planet Terra to earn a Michelin star, before adding (with classic Dubai audacity) “within five years—things move fast in Dubai.”
He’s got competition. Folia, celebrity vegan chef Matthew Kenney’s restaurant at Dubai’s sedately swanky Four Seasons hotel, serves luxurious and inventive dishes in a lush garden of tropical greenery (things move indoors during the summer, when temperatures can exceed 122 degrees).
Like Planet Terra, Folia eschews processed ingredients like fake meats and makes everything from milks and cheeses to burger buns in house from local, organic produce.
A starter of watermelon poke featured meaty chunks of glistening red fruit atop a bed of shredded kale in a light, gingery tamari vinaigrette that countered the melon’s sweetness. Mint leaves and micro greens sat delicately on top, highlighting the juicy flesh both visually and on the tongue.
Folia takes seemingly ordinary ingredients and creates transcendence. The Summer Roll is composed of a convincing “crab” made from celeriac with rich peanut chili sauce in a delicate rice noodle wrapper.
Folia’s unambiguously named Taco is a properly messy mound of barbacoa-style mushrooms topped with sumptuous cashew cheese. The pizzas at Folia are a delight—choose from pies topped with everything from truffle cream to rosa sauce, roasted wild mushrooms to juicy heirloom tomatoes, and nutty basil pesto to fluffy almond ricotta.
I finished it all off with a panna cotta that was smooth and delicately sweetened by bursts of maraschino set off with crunchy almonds. Then I walked the leafy landscaping to the Four Seasons’ sandy Persian Gulf beach before heading out past all the Lamborghinis, Paginis, and Ferraris.
A mall to end them all
The Dubai Mall isn’t your mother’s mall—it’s the biggest mall ever. It sprawls over five levels at the foot of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest structure on the planet. Besides more than 1,200 shops and restaurants, it includes a giant Diplodocus skeleton, huge fountains, a souk, and a skating rink.
Neat Burger, the UK-born fast-food chain co-founded by world champion Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton, overlooks this rink. I watched happy families swan about the ice three stories below as I tucked into a feast of perfect fast-food indulgence at this UAE outpost of a chain with locations in New York and London.
The Crispy Chik’n sandwich was thick, toothsome, and dripping in tangy vegan mayo, while the spicy fish burger sported a crunchy exterior, a tender and flaky interior, and just the right amount of marine flavor. Both came in a shiny, soft-and-yielding bun and cool iceberg lettuce straight out of the roadside burger chain cookbook. For an indulgent break from tradition, order a pot of melted cheese sauce to give any menu item a dunk into pure fondue decadence.
The double helping of Smash Daddy burger patties, made of pea protein and griddled directly onto a pile of thinly slivered onions, were as savory and smoky as they were thin and caramelized—the perfect pairing with a mound of piping-hot, salty tater tots. They were crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside, counterpoint to a thick chocolate milkshake that was cooling and not too sweet. I felt transported from this capitalist temple in the desert to a soft-focus vignette of childhood Americana complete with sandlot baseball, red flyers, and eager pups frolicking in slow motion.
Dubai, a wellness destination
This ability to evoke other times and places is Dubai’s strength—maybe its entire point.
Modeled on the Balinese aesthetic, Seva Table is a serene escape from the searing heat of concrete and glass. Dappled light dances in the leafy open space, and incense-infused air is alive with the mellow tune of hand-beaten tabla.
Co-founder Shadi Enbashi founded Seva Experience Wellness in 2014 with a comprehensive program of yoga, sound healing, bodywork, and training programs in different healing modalities. The café there was the first plant-based restaurant in the region, representing with beautiful and carefully considered organic dishes free of both gluten and cane sugar. The space is even free of wifi, inviting real presence.
The surprisingly fluffy almond flour omelette I tried came folded over a rich and tangy housemade cashew cream with perfectly cooked spinach and mushroom confit, along with avocado and a smooth, slightly piquant roasted tomato salsa.
The tofu wrap combined savory, smoky tofu scramble with coconut yogurt, queso sauce, and a bright, herby, citrus-spiked avocado sauce. The side salad of local greens and cherry tomatoes popped with freshness. “You can tell they weren’t in a plane,” says Enbashi.
Seva treats all their dishes with exuberant attention, infusing frequencies into the food with crystals, sound vibrations, and conscious intentions as it is prepared. “But we don’t want to make it too woo-woo,” says Enbashi. “We emphasize that everything we do comes from whole ingredients.”
Enbashi says dessert is the smoothest entry point for the vegan message in Dubai: “Nobody cares if it’s vegan or not; all you have to do is create delicious cakes.” Seva’s Snickers Pie combines layers of different textures (rich chocolate, crunchy nuts, soft caramel, and a date-nut base, all draped with a rich cacao sauce) achieving a well balanced, even thoughtful evocation. It was, simply put, really good.
“Food is not about stuffing your face, or even about calories,” concludes Enbashi. “It’s the basis for a truly beautiful, eclectic community that is colorful and very diverse.”
Amid all the gleaming glass and steel, one discovers a fascinating paradox. In this realm where everything feels revved up, maxed out, and always extravagant, a few vegan oases share a commitment to the natural, simple, and sustainable. They help travelers realize that the city’s audacious ambition extends beyond architectural triumphs.
Dubai, with its ability to transport us through time and space, dares visitors to reimagine the possibilities of a harmonious coexistence between human innovation and the natural world—a future where opulence coexists with a budding plant-based scene flourishing amid a landscape of dreams.