Once again, the Fairmont Towers Hotel has introduced a new dining concept to Cairo. Last time, it was a re-adaptation of classic American grilled fare. This time, it’s French-Vietnamese cuisine at Saigon Bleu.
A history of French colonialism has left a strong influence that is rarely employed Vietnamese cuisine. Previously, the capital Hanoi was referred to as Saigon and thus lends the restaurant a strong historical reference.
Chef Mai Phuong Nguyen has spent years in Europe and had a 12-year stint as Chef de Cuisine at the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi. It is apparent in Chef Nguyen’s kitchen that she borrows from the recipes her mother taught her as a child (the sole culinary school Nguyen attended was in her own home) – her experiences and social history.
Saigon Bleu utilizes fresh local produce and seafood from the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Main courses are centered on seafood, beef and chicken with creative sides.
But appetizers are a must and a good strategy is to order a few to share. The snow crab, avocado and mango salad with cilantro and lime sesame dressing is a refreshing start to the meal. Buttery and creamy in texture and flavor, it’s hard to identify what you’re eating other than flavorful goodness.
The fresh spring roll with smoked salmon and Vietnamese coriander and ginger to be dipped into Rau Mui sauce is a new take on traditional sushi. Best thing is Chef Nguyen has been tenderly planting and growing the Vietnamese coriander in her own kitchen due to the plant’s lack of availability in Egypt. Very good, but it’s the hot appetizers that pose the biggest competition.
The Hanoi fried rice spring rolls with chicken, shrimps and glass noodles, herb salad and dipping sauce were piping hot and perfect for the winter mood that recently set in.
The cinnamon and anise scented Vietnamese pot-au-feu soup with beef and rice noodles is a must try, even if you only try a few spoonfuls. It goes very well with the hot chili sauce provided in a little bowl; add a generous amount if you can stand spice. It does much to bring out the cinnamon and anise flavors.
For my main dish, I ordered the seared lobster tail with black beans and bean sprouts, which was served with a mango-artichoke salad. Although the black beans and bean sprouts were slightly too salty for my palette, the lobster was wonderfully fresh and lacked the briney taste that you often find in Cairo with lobster whose source is dubious.
Best of all was its interesting pairing with thin shoe string slivers of bitter mangos, which is not as soft or as sweet as those available in the summer. Winter flavors of beans and artichokes mixed with mangoes were original and appropriate for the season.
What else is being cooked up in Chef Nguyen’s kitchen? Green bean puree with salmon, filet mignon on succulent slices of beef; a traditional French roasted rack of lamb reinterpreted with tamarind sauce and shallots.
So is there room for dessert? Yes, but do take time to gaze at the restaurant’s interiors. Asian cool tones are fused with the rich visuals of French interior decorating. Silvers, golds, dark browns and touches of black are used on the walls, tables and linens. Seating areas have views of the Nile or the kitchen, which is visible through large floor-to-ceiling glass panes.
Chef Nguyen cannot hide her secrets as she and her staff work hard in the kitchen.
Dessert is like that found in most Asian cuisines, merely a second player to the great savory dishes on the menu.
Try the Pandan ricotta crepe stuffed with pineapple froth and cilantro. It s light and fresh, but not half as good as the star dishes. There is much to choose from though – iced cantaloupe soup or lemon grass crème brulee.
Dress code is smart casual, slightly sexy like the food and spirit of the restaurant, which will certainly resonate with patrons. The flavors are deliciously combined and the service is second to none.