Vive la France!
Hanan Radwan discovers a little-known restaurant in Cairo that is incontestably French
Is there a place in Cairo where you can enjoy gourmet food in a classy setting without being a celebrity and belonging to Who's Who? or taking out a second mortgage to pay for it? Amazingly, such a venue can be found.
However, the restaurant in question, called Le Bistro, seems to be a closely guarded secret. Even some members of staff at the hotel in which it is located, the Semiramis, stared quizzically and mumbled when asked for directions.
However, this is not in order to preserve the restaurant's exclusivity. Le Bistro is an offshoot of The Grill, the Semiramis's star restaurant, which was established fewer than four months ago and is located in the same hall.
"The idea behind Le Bistro is to give customers the pleasure of fine dining in a relaxed casual setting where they don't have to order a full dinner as they would at The Grill," explains Walid Abbas, ma"tre d'hôtel at both restaurants.
Le Bistro is a kind of cheerful microcosm of The Grill. Divided from its bigger sister, the restaurant occupies the inner area of the hotel's dining hall overlooking the Nile. As a result, Le Bistro's customers are not able to gaze at the river as they enjoy their meals, but there is no shortage of other entertainment.
You can watch the chef massaging steaks with oil and spices on the open wooden counter before placing them gently into the built-in grill behind him, for example. You can also watch chef Eric Heurtel, main chef at both The Grill and Le Bistro, as he looks over the shoulders of the sous-chefs as they work, occasionally himself flipping a saucepan or grinding pepper onto sizzling food.
And there's more. At 8.30pm every evening, a pianist and guitarist regale guests' ears with authentic jazz music until midnight. However, for at least this diner the best surprise at Le Bistro was the fact that some of the most tempting dishes on offer at The Grill have been "copied and pasted" onto Le Bistro's menu, in the words of Abbas, and their prices reduced.
To cover cost differences, tableware and service have been reduced: tables at Le Bistro are not covered with imported linen tablecloths as they are at The Grill, and in lieu of napkins customers can dab their mouths with one of the small serviettes stacked on a small dish. All the cutlery is heaped together on another dish, and although service is chic the waiters only visit to perform essential tasks with no extra pampering.
Yet, when it comes to the food, Le Bistro makes no compromises. In deference to French cuisine, the ingredients are all fresh, of top-notch quality, and cooked to perfection and with no fuss.
The classic soupe gratinée à l'oignon was more flavourful than many I have tasted in Paris, for example. Arriving piping hot in a spacious earthenware pot, the cinnamon-coloured broth includes generous portions of slivered onions, a creamy soaked toast slice, and shavings of Emmental cheese.
Then there is the petits legumes farcis et pommes de terre dauphinoise. Stuffing made of spiced ground beef is used to fatten up a yellow bell-pepper, tomato, small black eggplant, courgette and artichoke heart, and the entire array is then dusted with a mixture of breadcrumbs and provençale herbs. This combination of beef, vegetables and accompanying fresh tomato sauce is delicious proof of the refined character of French cuisine.
Indeed, Le Bistro's identity is incontestably French, though it is also true that some elements have been borrowed from other countries. In addition to the Chicago-style jazz music, for example, all the grilled meat used is imported from the United States and Australia. However, if anything these foreign additions add further perfection to the already high culinary standards.
A further example is the Australian entrecôte de boeuf, a thick chunk of prime steak that cleaves smoothly to the slice of a knife and almost melts in the mouth.
A grilled meat order also comes with a choice of side order and sauce. In our case, the sinfully creamy dauphinoise potatoes and the buttery béarnaise sauce could not have made a better finale to a delectable experience.
Semiramis InterContinental Hotel
Tel: 2795 7171
Open daily from 7pm till midnight
Dinner for two: LE292