Ayman Samir stood grinning at the pass like an illusionist who could not wait to share his secrets. Moustafa El Refaey stayed behind the curtain, working his magic with knife and flame. All the while Wesam Masoud popped in and out of the dining room like the Higgs boson, proving that this was not an illusion after all, that there was intelligent design, that the textures, colors and flavors flowing from the kitchen were as real and alive as anything in the universe.
The event appeared in cyber space out of nothingness, a pop up Chef’s Table that materialized last Sunday at the Cellar Door in Maadi. It is Chef Ayman’s place and one of my all time Cairo favorites. Wesam once cooked there too, as executive sous chef, before going on to open his own restaurant consultancy company; so it was a reunion of sorts. And with the addition of Moustafa, who has worked in the U. S. and Dubai, cooked with Gordon Ramsay, and is currently co-owner and executive chef at Zooba in Zamalek, the heavens were aligned for a stellar meal.
The Cellar Door is a cozy space, soft whites, oranges and yellows, jazz playing in the background and, on this night, laughter. The guests for the Chef’s Table were young urban professionals, an ingathering of the growing foodist community. Bloggers, writers, twitter people, amateur chefs: the same enthusiasts to be found at similar happenings, like Yousry Zaghow’s Supper Club, Cairo’s first pop up restaurant that similarly appeared out of nowhere late last year.
This time our trio of conjurers put together a seven-course meal that opened with a bang—chilled tomato consommé and a “liquid” bruschetta of tomato, peach, green tea and saffron. “I’m using taste buds I didn’t know I had” proclaimed her royal self. From there the menu expanded outwards at the speed of light, fresh and creative continental fare.
The mini salad Nicoise condensed the tuna, anchovies, tomato, egg and olives into a single bite. The timbale of orange, olives and harissa that accompanied it likewise tasted of a Mediterranean summer with just the right amount of heat.
The ceviche did not work as well as I would have hoped. Accustomed to Peruvian and Mexican variations, the diced seabass and whole shrimp seemed out-of-balance, and were overwhelmed by the sweet cucumber water. It needed more crunch and more chili. The dessert course too could have been tweaked. Although the plating of the vanilla cardamom pretzel buns and brûléed bananas was fun and kinky, the mint chocolate ganache, orange crème anglaise and pistachio crumbs did not have the gravity to pull the dish together.
Everything else was brilliant. The roasted salmon with mango slaw was bright and buttery; it’s twin star, an anchovy and seaweed encrusted salmon with wasabi mash, caramelized fennel and red pepper sauce, crisp, firm and briny. What got me off most was the beetroot “ravioli.” Filled with macadamia nuts, cashews, dates, garlic, spinach, soy, lemon juice and green onion, it was a splendid trick. The flavors blended naturally, and the texture was precisely al dente, even though the ingredients were raw. It was accompanied by a spinach ravioli, an artichoke ravioli, and a Provencal arancini (fried risotto ball) with smoked red pepper aioli. For meat lovers there was a kicking braised lamb shank with apple demi-glace and a beef tenderloin with harissa and red wine sauce. We did not leave hungry.
At the end of the show Wizard Chef Wesam emerged to thank his team, beginning with the dishwasher, a classy move that brought a round of applause from the dining room. The front-of-house staff was equally integral to the production, keeping pace with the kitchen in a smooth ensemble performance. Wizard Chef Ayman and Wizard Chef Moustafa then drew back the curtain and joined the diners for conversation about food and future events.
Who knows when Chef’s Table will pop up again? Rumor has it that we should look for something after the Eid. If you want to join, you are more than welcome, but the only way not to miss it is to plug into Facebook and Twitter, which is where Cairo’s culinary conversations are taking place. My Twitter handle is @BiteMeCairo and you can easily follow the trail of food writers from there. Likewise there are any number of Cairo food blogs where you can pick up the details about the relevant Facebook pages. You’ll have to put a little effort into it, but for true foodists the quest is half the fun.