The struggle to understand French food on my part has recently been resolved.
I have come to grips with their philosophy of using only the finest, and oftentimes the most obscurely, unfamiliar ingredients such as tapioca pearls. I have also resigned myself to small delicate portions. I have consented to having my taste buds teased and palette tantalized in a most sadistic manner.
For the first time in the Middle East, a three-star Michelin chef is coming to Sofitel El Gezirah Cairo from May 6-18 for a food festival to engage one’s palette in a dance of flavors and surprises. French Chef Jean-Michel Lorain hails from Joigny, Burgundy; from a family that has been cooking for decades.
He is the youngest chef to be awarded three stars, continuing a legacy that started with his grandmother in 1945 when she decided to open a small family-run boarding house in a grand manor in Joigny, calling it La Côte Saint-Jacques.
Today, it is home to a narrative of both family and culinary success: La Côte Saint-Jacques has retained a reputation of excellence in dining for over 64 years. They were awarded their first Michelin star in 1971, a second star in 1976, and the top honor of a third star in 1986.
Every expectation was met when I dined with a few lucky guests at Vendôme last week as Chef Lorain hinted at what is to come in May.
On receiving Michelin recognition Chef Lorain said, “It’s a great feeling but we don’t work to have stars, we work to satisfy our guests. And after, if we are recognized by guests and the Michelin guide, it is very welcome.
It is there at the Sofitel’s French restaurant that Chef Lorain prepared a five-course menu. It was a clash of visual senses between the rich interiors, breathtaking view of the Nile and artfully presented courses.
Starting with a tuna and half-smoked salmon like sushi, crispy radicchio and cabbage with raifort, light wasabi cream, sushi has never seemed so sophisticated. Four small pieces of fish each rested on a dollop of raifort and shredded cabbage giving the fish a well-rounded taste. The fish was to be dipped into the wasabi cream, which was able to mask the sting of wasabi allowing me to enjoy its full flavors.
This was followed by Atlantic lobster in a delicate licorice-flavored broth, with baby fennel and tapioca pearls. There was a balance of sweetness delivered by the licorice, which the chef later revealed to me to be a broth based in milk with only a few grams of licorice. The lobster was soft and balanced sweet and savory as it swam in a shimmering pool of tapioca pearls. No one flavor overwhelmed the palette, it was a like a musical movement where every ingredient was composed to work together, balancing flavor and texture.
Asking for the secret of his lobster, he explained the conscious effort to make all recipes light. “It is an old stereotype that chefs are fat, I eat very little. Life is changing and one tries to preserve one’s health. The cuisine is lighter, less butter, less cream.
Moving on to the third course, a baby lamb with sweet potato cream, saffron carrot, green anis sauce all melding together to form a somewhat organic and earthy plate. Usually not a fan of lamb, I was surprised to find it was light and flavorful.
Although this particular lamb was brought with Chef Lorain from France, its delicate meat is on par with Egyptian lamb, which is why Chef Lorain is pondering the use of local lamb for this dish in May.
The potatoes which were creamed with the saffron carrot and a carrot-vinegar based sauce gave a somewhat tangy taste to the whole plate.
It was now time for dessert. Not just one, but two courses remained to indulge one’s sweet tooth.
Set before me was a medley of pink shades: Rose ice cream in crisp tulip shell with crystallized rose petals. After visiting Lebanon, Chef Lorain was inspired to use that standard ingredient; the juice of rose petals.
Resting on a biscuit base were purple rose petals vertically attached, crystallized with a coating of sugar. There was a sense of whimsicality to the overall appearance as forest berries in a red sauce swam around the ice cream, which rested inside the petals like the bulb of a flower, with thin slivers of almond biscuit on the side.
On his selection of ingredients he said, “Sometimes the inspiration does not come from France, I travel a lot and see something interesting in another country and try to make something with it. And pairing it with other ingredients is a matter of fantasy, you try to do your best [via trial and error], and it comes together like a puzzle.
The final and fifth course exhibited a sense of fusion adventure. Pimento-spiced banana and pineapple kebab, granite, light cream with farmer’s cheese and lime transcended conventional fruit and cheese desserts. To cleanse one’s palette were spiced slivers of pineapple, frosted with ice chips; a dried vanilla bean pod skewered the “kebab of sliced pineapple and banana also slightly spiced and subtly sweet. A lime flavored mousse with a carpaccio slice of dried pineapple was the final touch of flair, delicately balancing like a flower atop the mousse.
The five courses were but a few of the signature dishes one can expect come May. Chef Lorain speaks casually about his brilliant work, he dismisses it all with a nonchalant smile, and why should he not? It seems to be all in a day’s work.
Constantly working on new recipes and changing the menu at La Côte Saint-Jacques every three months, Chef Lorain promises to deliver new surprises.
Those hoping to dine at Vendôme in May will have set menus of either LE 390 (all inclusive) for a four course meal, or LE 490 (all inclusive) for a six course meal. An à la carte menu is also available with varying prices per dish.
Sofitel El Gezirah CairoTel: (02) 2737 3737La Côte Saint-Jacques Tel: (+33) 03 8662 0970www.cotesaintjacques.com