We wouldn't usually put the complexities of French Nouvelle Cuisine with the comforts of authentic Lebanese creations, but Fairmont Heliopolis and Towers' Al Dabké is doing just that, with gusto.
When you think of Lebanese food, you think about the comforting smell of freshly baked bread, the tantalising trip that your taste buds go on thanks to the mix of herbs and spices synonymous with the Levant and meat and lots of it. Here at CairoScene, we’re big believers in the ever-eloquent maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so when we were invited to the Fairmont Heliopolis and Towers, to head back to Al Dabké – already one of our favourite luxury Lebanese restaurants in Cairo – to try out their Nouvelle Cuisine menu, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. If Lebanese food is comforting, then the French school of thought when it comes to fine dining is usually the opposite; complicated, overly artistic and never exactly satisfying. How could the two come together? Deliciously, that’s how.
Chef Michel Ghawi, the mastermind behind the new menu offerings, explained to us that it was about time Lebanon stopped resting on its culinary laurels and start moving into the 21st century. Still a little skeptical, we asked him to wow us by choosing his own favourite dishes for us to try. “We’ll start with Ostrich Soup, then!” he said, which, needless to say, didn’t exactly put us at ease.
Before we knew it, the wine was flowing, and half a glass in, steaming bowls of soup, topped with fresh parsley (reminding us that Lebanese ingredients still reign supreme), were tempting us. To our surprise, the strips and meatballs made of ostrich were unbelievably succulent, and with a squeeze of lemon, the dish was the perfect antidote to the winter chill that’s beginning to set in. For those of you who, like us, have never ventured into ostrich meat before, the best way to describe it is that it has the tenderness of veal mixed with the gaminess of duck and it is pretty darn delicious. Served with a side of fresh bread, baked in a traditional brick oven at the restaurant’s entrance, it made for the perfect appetite kick-starter and we were ready for more.
Next on Chef Ghawi’s special selection was an array of hot and cold appetizers; modernised and sophisticated mezze. Familiar plates like taboule, hummous, wara2 3enab and more made our way to our table, but each dish had a twist. Whether it was vine leaves stuffed with the traditional rice, mixed with fresh prawns, or a gorgeously garlic-y tomeya topped with strips of smoked salmon, the Nouvelle Cuisine element was certainly made clear, without comprising the integrity and indulgence of a good Lebanese meal. Even the taboule was presented with avocado and prawns, and this may just be the best taboule we’ve tasted in Egypt. Red onions stuffed with crab and freshly baked pastrami fatayer are also on our list of things to order again when we inevitably head back.
Encouraged by our quick intake of the masses of fusion food, Chef Ghawi quickly treated us to the Nouvelle Cuisine menu’s take on the classic mixed grill. Presented on a golden grill, and with silver service, fresh from the skewer, we hardly had a chance to breathe between courses, especially since we hadn’t left a crumb of appetiser on the plate. “Not to worry,” said Ghawi as we pointed to our already bursting bellies. “We take our time over food in Lebanon. Relax, have another glass of wine, make some space.” And that’s exactly what we did. Mid-conversation, we turned out to realise that Al Dabké was indeed pretty packed out, though we never felt like it was loud or busy, thanks to the spacious venue and Fairouz’s greatest hits playing softly in the background.
It wasn’t long, however, until we were ready to tackle the meat and that’s the beauty of incorporating the concepts of Nouvelle Cuisine into what could traditionally be a heavy meal. We were presented with grilled chicken breasts stuffed with apricot and veal steaks, stuffed with prunes, and the mix of salty and sweet perfectly complimented each other. Another break and another glass of wine later, Chef Ghawi sent over their signature dessert; traditional Lebanese Tamria (kind of like sweet spring rolls, but eternally lighter), served with misteka ice cream, topped with pistachios and a tart berry jus that all came together for the perfect ending to an indulgent meal.