Which is ravioli
Italian summons up notions of carbohydrate-rich plenty. The slightly sweet aroma of basil in olive oil is besides the point. Think Italian, and you are overtaken not by the subtle temptations of something light and exquisite, but by a sense of cheery fullness -- a gregariously rich solidity, as inviting as... well... a plate of pasta. This writer is no culinary connoisseur, let it be known at the outset. I tend to eat faster than I do most things. Not that I don't enjoy it; there just seems to be little point in lingering, however flavoursome the substance.
So in accepting an invitation to try out this swanky eatery's newly reinvented menu -- a pre-set sequence, as it turns out -- it was less a matter of locating the best Bolognese sauce in town as an earnest curiosity, like an innocent's excitement about initiation. The condition was no doubt enhanced by the setting, one of Cairo's better known centres of extortion -- as I like to call five- and, increasingly, seven-star hotels, much as I enjoy them, especially when my profession spares me the bill, which is not as often as I'd like, mind you. Abundant visions of what Pavarotti must eat to maintain fullness of figure and voice alike added their own accents of anticipation, and I set out in a spirit of openness. Show us what you're made of, Conrad...
Anti-climactic, then, that the candle-lit interior should not turn out to be all that impressive. Swanky it certainly was, like everything in the hotel, but somehow it lacked anything unique, except... well... we'll come to that. What makes commentary problematic is that, immediately on identifying myself, my companion and I were treated as special guests, with the new chef -- a White House veteran, I am told -- coming out to welcome us in person, all remarkably stout six foot five of him. Asking whether he needed to worry about allergies, he listed the three-course meal, to be followed by tiramisu, he said -- lingering slightly on il primo to indicate that it would be fresh pasta, "which is ravioli", he added -- then departing. I made nothing of the glitch, thinking ahead to the sea bass that was to make up il secondo. Before I could think, indeed, pots of tangy dip had promptly accompanied the bread basket on the table.
The antipasto was just what it is meant to be: a flower of sautéed vegetable strips (or were they steamed?) -- carrot, aubergine and courgette -- with a bud of fried parmesan in the middle, and swimming in so much aromatic oil it was not as light an experience as it appeared on first inspection, but light enough -- and perfect, all things considered, for opening up the palate and regulating tummy temperature, as it were. Indeed, throughout the experience, in terms of quantity, order and nuance, the food was very thoughtfully arranged. By the end we were full but not too full. None of the drowsiness associated with yet another session of the carbohydrate-rich plenty of Italian as we know it -- which makes you think. Must be what classy cooking is all about.
Il secondo, too, proved excellent, I must say: here was a main course as a main course should be. Having arrived on a bed of soft batter, the fish dissolved in the mouth, crisp and subtle, alongside a firm kind of mashed potato the like of which, I believe, had never entered my masticatory apparatus -- and once again, everything was as delicately diaphanous as you would never expect Italian to be. Weird -- still, neither of these two courses altered the pace of my consumption very significantly. Occasionally I would stop and savour, it is true. At one point said companion and I decided to order two Cokes, which I thought might offend the chef but went ahead with anyway. We just proceeded with the feast, discussing the experience as we had it...
Not so with il primo, I must hasten to add. Little did I know, when he made it, that the chef's chance remark would prove prophetic; it was as if he was bracketing this particular course on purpose, knowing the strange effect it would have on me. Weeks later, the companion and I are still trying to work out what was actually in the pasta, a miracle of texture even if you took away the taste. On the oblong plate were three disks of the substance, studded, in the evening's aesthetically charged manner, with savagely delightful onion sauce. Well, every bite of the stuff -- as you carved them out, you would try different amounts of the think, dark sauce for accompaniment, sometimes hazarding a taste of its strong distinctive taste in isolation just to see what it was like -- every bite, I was saying, deserved at least two minutes of meditation.
My only complaint is the coffee, an afterthought in which the chef was not involved. Still, swanky is swanky. And, for a connoisseur of the magic bean -- the only thing in a restaurant of which this writer truly is a connoisseur -- it just seems wrong, after an evening of which incredibly effortless delight, for the coffee to have neither taste nor texture.
Villa d'Este, Conrad International Hotel
1191 Corniche Al-Nil
Tel: 02 580 8000