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Giza, Cairo, Egypt.
La Maison Blanche: Fantastic Winter Wonderland at the First Place
“Welcome to La Maison Blanche” is the greeting bestowed upon guests as they enter the designer French restaurant at the Four Seasons’ First Place in Giza. That and a giant black horse, whose sole purpose is to display the lamp shade above its head. Thankfully, this is the lone, truly bizarre element in Didier Gomez’s imported French designs.
From the warm glow of the elegant fireplace in the Cigar Lounge to the dining room’s disco-ball petal chandeliers, or even the toilet’s fuchsia appliqué-floral walls– no detail has been spared in the fabulously stylish venue. The eclectic combination of modern and art-deco motifs risks being ultra-tacky but makes every room distinct. Mirrors everywhere, including the ceiling, make an already vast space even grander.
Our attentive waiters stepped into play at our intimate table for two, bringing us still water served in a square, silver decanter and hot towels to wipe our hands on. They offered a selection of delectable crispy and flaky rolls with light, flavourful herb butter, before presenting shiny, silver menus and leaving us to discover what they had in store.
After reviewing the tasting menu, which seemed to highlight their specialties, we decided on three courses. We started with the smoked salmon soup served with scallops and asparagus; and the ravioli au foie gras. For our main course, we selected the Australian rack of lamb with hazelnut crust, Anna potatoes and Forestière sauce and the roasted veal tenderloin in cocotte served with autumns’ vegetables.
While waiting for our appetisers, we enjoyed the bottomless bread and butter basket accompanied by a salmon amuse-bouche that was continuously refilled thanks to the fast and seamless service. The appetisers arrived just as swiftly: the smoked salmon soup was poured dramatically onto a plate of three large scallops with sprigs of asparagus. The ravioli au foie gras was drenched in rich, mushroom-infused sauce. Both appetisers were creamy and divine; the scallops were tender and the ravioli delicate.
Our main courses were just as impressive: the roasted veal tenderloin and the Australian rack of lamb were cooked to perfection with tasty, roasted vegetables.
For dessert, we shared La Maison Blanche lingot-au-chocolat, which was recommended by our waiter. The combination of thick Valhrona mousse and praline chocolate bar garnished with gold leaf was heaven.
A sixth course of complimentary flavoured chocolates, macaroons, marshmallows and Turkish delight left us thoroughly impressed.
The genuinely friendly servers were wonderful; they made the experience unpretentious and welcoming. At 800LE for a dinner for two minus wine, we received the exceptional food and excellent service that we would expect for such a price tag.
Stashed like a clandestine vault in the new Gabriel Hotel at Sun City Mall in Heliopolis - so fresh that security and information services were unaware of the restaurant’s fourth-floor location - the two-month-old Salt resembles a den for a don and his suited flunkies.
A windowless room with larger-than-life divans in blue velvet, studded chairs in ivory suede, staggered mirrors, crystal chandeliers and obelisks, periwinkle wall trimmings, a pair of sculpted knock-offs of Venus de Milo and a waiter clad in standard barman gear - burgundy bow-tie and red suspenders to match - strut the Mafia motif.
Frankly, the décor is borderline gaudy, but
if the lighting were dimmed a notch and white tablecloths, spotlighted, Salt could
just as well be one of the swankiest watering holes in the city – all at a fair
price. Fine French for two that includes fish, lamb, duck and foie gras for
under 500LE is a moveable feast.
Chef Bruno Contreras, a French transplant who before moving to Cairo six months ago ran a five-star restaurant at a resort in the Maldives, schools our palates with a dinner menu limited to a choice of six appetizers, six main courses and six desserts.
To begin, a selection of complimentary breads brought to the table on a cutting board amused our bouches and were served with a touch of olive oil and sea salt. Our favourites were the date roll and the potato bread, but they’re all worthy of sampling (and they’re free).
For starters, we splurged with the duck breast (75LE) and the foie gras (85LE). The former was cured and sliced over a parmesan almond biscuit spread with a dry fig paste and slices of beetroot, while the latter was presented in generous tranches of rich goose liver to spread on two dainty, golden brioches. A third brioche may be necessary.
For mains, hearty chunks of lamb shoulder (87LE) seasoned with kofta spices and cumin carousel around a mound of creamy potato purée laurelled with twigs of thyme and asparagus; and two portions of grilled red snapper (73LE) mounted a bed of black rice, anise and artichoke - a medley that was flavourful but a tad too oily. The fish was flaky and its skin crispy; and the lamb could have come with a bit more fat-in. But if you’re into a romp well-done, it’s a keeper.
Dessert came down to a toss-up between the panna cotta (34LE) and the crème brulée (34LE). But in keeping with the soirée française, we went with the brulée. Traditionally, a thin layer of sugar is torched atop a custard base. But Salt’s rendition takes the layer and whirls it in mid-air and freezes it into a static cascade of glistening candied sugar. And if that isn’t a dénouement to a climactic meal, Chef Bruno astounds us with his variations on crème: three orbs of creamy mousse infused with lemon, white chocolate and rosemary - c’est vachement bon!
Presentation and service all-around at Salt exceeded expectations. Overall, Chef Bruno’s cookery accentuates the essence, flavours and textures of pure ingredients and elevates an otherwise simple, straightforward menu. Salt is Cairo’s go-to for modern French cuisine done right, bar none.