BY AMANDA RIGGS
Many Cairo restaurant owners seem to think putting a "le" in front of their restaurant's name gives it an air of credibility, hiding the pretentiousness of its insipid French-inspired menus. Le Vendôme is different. It is French. Very French.
Chef Thierry Le Queau has prepared a fine selection of classic French dishes that evoke the simple, home-cooked flavors of his childhood in Brittany. Expect to find meats served on the rarer side, crisp vegetables and refreshingly light sauces and seasoning - the emphasis being on drawing out the natural flavors of the high-quality ingredients instead of masking them in heavy marinades.
And the setting? The elegant dining room hosts clean lines, warm hues and well-appointed contemporary decor.
Polished oak paneling hugs the curvaceous walls, which arc around a central pillar. The column divides the dining space, creating more intimacy for the well-spaced tables, most set for two. Reflective lighting casts a warm glow on the provincial yellow ceiling. The decor is simple, and without clutter. Colorful blown glass vases occupy niches in the oak cabinets that line the walls. Artwork is tastefully appointed throughout the room.
Additional seating is available in a small terrace, currently under renovation. The adjacent private dining room, ideal for business gatherings, seats six. Its floor-to-ceiling glass windows give diners a panoramic view of the river and city lights.
With only a handful of tables, the wait staff is able to attend to your individual needs. The head waiter describes the food preparation while the waiters pour drinks, clean the table after each setting and present you with the dishes. Service is friendly yet unimposing - allowing you to enjoy a business dinner or romantic evening.
Le Vendôme's menu stays true to classical French cooking with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients such as porcini, black truffle and morel mushrooms. Appetizers include enticing selections such as lobster perfumed with black truffle, oxtail and oyster mushroom ravioli, and roasted sea scallops wrapped in filo dough.
I started with Pressé de foie gras de canard, confiture de dattes et pain de champagne grillé (duck liver pâté with date jam and toasted country bread, LE 220), which was steep in price, but well worth the indulgence. The foie gras is prepared in-house using French ingredients and served chilled with a warm date jam on crostinis. The rich, buttery pâté spread delicately across the toasted bread and played well with the tart sweetness of the dates - an unusual, local twist on a classic French delicacy.
My dining companion sampled the Émincé de thon rouge à l'huile d'olive extra vierge (thinly sliced fresh tuna drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, LE 120), which was topped with a light cream sauce and black caviar. Served chilled and raw, the delicate ahi carpaccio was fresh enough to be garnished with just a pinch of cracked pepper.
For the main course, my passion for seafood led me to order the Bar de ligne poêlé sauce matelote et ses légumes glacés (pan-seared sea bass fillet in a red wine sauce with glazed vegetables, LE 160), which is lightly seared on one side in butter to give it a crisp texture while locking in the fish's natural juices. A red wine reduction is drizzled over the fillet, giving it a rich, slightly tangy flavor. The fish was served with fresh, firm vegetables glazed in butter. The contrast in textures and flavors made this melt-on-your-fork dish good to the last bite.
My dining companion was faring equally well with the Tournedos de canard rôti, sauce poivrade, pommes farcies (roasted duck pastries, pepper sauce and stuffed potatoes, LE 140), a tender duck breast sliced into round medallions and wrapped in crispy filo dough. The thinly layered pastries were coated in a mild crushed pepper sauce infused with butter and veal stock. Accompanying this were three baked potato medallions stuffed with sweet caramelized onions, a tomato confit and fresh chives.
Dessert, as is custom in France, includes sweet and savory dishes. The Sélection de fromages importés (selection of imported cheeses, LE 95) included mouthwatering samples of Brie, Gruyère, Emmental, Saint Nectar and goat cheese - ideal for pairing off with fine wine.
The sweet delicacies on the dessert menu include seasonal fruits on vanilla ice cream, a caramel cylinder with chocolate sauce, an almond-flavored apple and date tart, and assorted chocolates. None will disappoint, but it would be a shame to leave without trying the Crème brûlée à la vanille bourbon (crème brûlée flavored with vanilla bourbon, LE 90). The quintessential Gallic dessert is served chilled, its creamy custard topped with a thin layer of warm caramelized sugar that bears a hint of the fruity-malt taste of bourbon.
Although Le Vendôme is open for business, changes are expected in the near future. Plans are afoot to encase the terrace in glass to protect against strong winds. The terrace will then become the main dining room, while the current one will be converted into a bar and lounge.
Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah Hotel
Open Daily from 7 pm to 12 pm