The Fairmont Nile City hotel opened up last month in the Nile Towers, with contemporary interiors, a young staff and a relaxed vibe in the hotel lobby that seems tailored to young, successful twenty- and thirty-somethings.
It’s a little taste of New York hipness and California coolness.
Throughout the hotel, dark wood, curlicues of wrought iron, large sheets of glass and sculptures by Mohamed El-Fayoumi play together. And the hotel’s various dining outlets so far seem to have the same design philosophy.
I recently dined at the newly-opened Napa Grill, a restaurant inspired by California cuisine where seasonal ingredients are used to create dishes and meals with a refreshingly light palate. The food at Napa Grill is also overlapped with old school French dining methods of degustation menus, intermezzo courses of delicious tangy sorbets and artful plating arrangements. And there’s an element of standard American fare such as steak and potatoes, ranch dressings and the like being somewhat gentrified.
The chef at this establishment is a young 32-year-old American by the name of Matthew Gilbert. A sweet-tempered chef both in the dining room and the kitchen, he is often spotted in the dining room with patrons, discussing the meal, local seasonal produce, or cheerily handing out cooking tips.
But most surprising, despite his 17 years working in some of the world’s most successful kitchens – cooking for presidents, celebrities and famous food critics – he humbly asks for feedback from diners. Such characters in the dining room do not interest him. He’s more inspired by curious diners and food enthusiasts.
Gilbert is a storyteller, and if fortunate enough to be invited into his kitchen for a cooking class, the evening is a thoroughly informative one. He’ll tell you about his travels around South America where he learned recipes such as a fish dish cooked thoroughly in a lemon marinade called ceviche from 80-year-old women in Peru, and his experiences with Alpha male chefs in France.
Characters such as Gordan Ramsay are not television exaggerations. A kitchen is a tough place to work and Gilbert has the burns to prove it; he explains them as well intentioned disciplinary measures by chefs who inflict it upon their students and staff.
He taught me a great seafood assortment with a risotto recipe, explained the simplicity of aioli (homemade mayonnaise) and demonstrated how the layering of shrimp on apple slices can be a surprisingly good combination. His kitchen is large and impressively clean, and an entire crew of Egyptian staff works with him to create as I stand and watch the action.
It is also extremely hot and Gilbert coolly instructs in a mix of English and flawlessly pronounced Arabic. Short sentences but impressive nevertheless, he’s only just arrived last July. He’s firmly grasped an understanding too of how Egyptians like to eat, but he’s also hoping to change that.
Gilbert’s dishes are light, and a multiple course meal leaves one satiated yet never uncomfortably full. Whereas many here prefer dishes heavily doused in creamy sauces and with a minimum of three uncomplicated ingredients in one dish, Gilbert is challenging palettes and conventional dining attitudes.
Lunch is served in a wide dining area with leather upholstered booths and although it is in line with the hotel’s silently cool masculine theme, it does not compliment the colors nor the philosophy of Gilbert’s dishes. But it is nevertheless a pleasant environment to dine in. The dining area is dark and somewhat drab, but the view of Zamalek’s mansions are quite beautiful.
Reading the lunch or dinner menu is an exercise in lip-smacking: Dishes such as Artichocke cappuccino soup with aged Pecorino cheese, and essence of lemon and basil (LE 78); Red Sea blue crab cake with lemon aioli, avocado, grapefruit and tomato-cumin salsa (LE 122); Napa Grill signature char-grilled sirloin of US Angus beef with truffle macaroni and fontina cheese, grilled asparagus, soy caramel sauce and fried shallots (LE 188) are alongside typical lunch fare on the menu.
But a burger is not just a burger: the Napa Valley burger comes with caramelized onions, mushrooms, fontina cheese, thyme aioli and truffle friends on a herb-brioche bun.
Tomato-cumin. Red Sea blue crab. Basil. Truffle fries.
Dinner is just as enticing, and reads in much the same way: intriguing pairings of ingredients both familiar to our local cuisine and those that are not. The menu is extensive and offers something for both carnivores and vegetarians. Although a grill-themed restaurant (and boy was my steak good), the menu is a treat for pesketarians and vegans alike.
Taking wine very seriously as any California-inspired restaurant would, a wide variety of French, Italian, Chilean, New Zealander and of course Napa Valley wine is on offer. Not to mention, organic wine from the States for green-conscious oenophiles.
A sommelier is on hand to help pair wine with dishes, and dessert is just as curious an experience as lunch or dinner.
Try the Napa banana foster with Madagascar vanilla pound cake, spiced sabayon and banana ice cream (LE 55), very spicy in a somewhat delicate fruity way. The soft centered chocolate cake with lavender marshmallows and apricot ice cream (LE 55) was also particularly good and a perfect example of updated standard American comfort dishes with a twist. A very sophisticated twist at that.
Next time I visit, I’m hoping to try the red berry cheesecake with olive oil ice cream and olive tapenade Madeleine (LE 55)
All in all, a very worthwhile experience and Chef Gilbert’s talent is very much appreciated.
Butternut squash soup
1 yellow onion julienne 1 leek julienne5 cloves minced garlic5 grams coriander3 grams cumin5 grams paprika2 grams chili powder30 ml white vinegar1 kg squash or pumpkin diced1.5 liter vegetable stock120 ml creamSalt and pepper to taste
Sweat the onion, leek and garlic with the spices over medium low heat for 30 minutes or until the onions appear translucent. Add the vinegar and squash and stir until vinegar reduces by half. Add the vegetable broth and the cream. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 1 and a half hours. Season with salt and pepper and then strain, keeping both the liquid and the solids. Place the solids in a blender and begin to puree, adding only as much stock as is needed to make a soup consistency. When very finely blended, pour into a container and repeat this process to blend the rest of the soup. (The reason for straining the liquid off is to control how thick or thin the soup turns out. In this way you can decide how thick you like it.) Taste the soup and adjust with more salt, pepper or vinegar as needed. Serve garnishes with fried parsnips, ground nuts, apples, croutons or any other autumnal crunchy ingredients that you fancy.
Autumn shrimp salad
8 large shrimp (head cut off)100g diced parsnip100g butternut or squash diced80 g apple diced10 g basil chiffonade5 g coriander powderAioli (to taste)1 head greens or mesclun salad greens if desired60 ml maple cider vinaigretteSalt and pepper to taste
Grill or sauté the shrimp and then cool on a sheet tray. Remove the tail and dice with a sharp knife. Set aside. In separate pans, quickly sauté the parsnip and squash until tender. Set aside to cool and then place in a mixing bowl with the shrimp, the apples, the basil and the coriander. Add the aioli to bind the salad. Season with salt and pepper to taste and place on a plate in an artful manner. Toss the greens in a separate bowl with the vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with croutons or crostinis for texture.
Seafood assortment with vegetable risotto
For the risotto:
1 red onion diced30 grams butter250 grams Arborio rice1.5 liter vegetable stock50 grams wilted spinach50 grams blanched asparagus50 grams cherry tomatoes, halved10 grams minced parsley30 grams grated parmesan cheese10 additional grams butter (for frying on
ions)Salt and pepper to taste
For the seafood:
8 scallops4 prawns4 pieces (120 grams each) sea bass or salmon Lemon juice to tasteSalt and pepper to taste
For the risotto, sweat the diced red onions in the butter until they are translucent. About 20 minutes, do not allow to brown. Add the rice and toast it in the butter with the onions for 5 minutes. While the onions are sweating, heat the vegetable stock in a separate pan. When the rice is ready, add 100 ml of the hot stock and stir. When the stock has reduced, add 100 ml more. Cook the risotto rice in this manner over medium heat, stirring frequently. When the risotto is al dente , add the vegetables and stir for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and add the cheese and stir in the cold butter. While making the risotto, prepare the seafood. Dry the scallops well and then season them. Sear them in a heavy bottomed sauté pan until golden and then finish them in the oven. Grill the prawns. Sear or grill the fish and finish it in the oven. Plate the risotto and then arrange the seafood around it in an attractive manner. Garnish and serve.