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Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.
Salt: Exquisite French Cuisine in Heliopolis
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.
In a city like Cairo, diminishing daily meals to a fast bite here and there can often be the case – and the Cairo dining scene is largely set-up for exactly that. But from time to time, we all like elevate eating to a much more refined experience.
French boulangerie, Paul, has found a welcome home in Cairo over the last few years and the branch in Downtown Katameya Mall in New Cairo is just one of many.
During our visit, it was fairly crowded when we entered, and no one greeted or seated us. The outside seating area, overlooking the fountain, was filled with hungry customers and so we reluctantly walked in and chose one of the few empty tables available indoors in Paul’s signature blend of French artisan cafe decor and furnishings.
A waitress immediately came by our table and placed the tableware as well as the menu. The beautifully designed menu was absolutely alluring; we wanted to devour every single item on there. From hearty soups to light salads and sandwiches to full-on main courses and sinful pastries, the place has it all.
Wanting to stick to our plan of having a light brunch, we settled for a Pesto Chicken Sandwich (59LE), requesting a brown instead of white baguette, Pain Au Chocolat et Pistaches (17LE), and a Chocolate Crepe (35 E). For drinks, we opted for some fresh Orange Juice (20LE)
A couple of seconds after our waitress took our order, we were brought a complimentary basket of freshly baked bread with butter and olive paste. The bread was amazing and the olive paste definitely awakened our taste buds. The service was astonishingly swift and the food was gracefully laid on our table within minutes of ordering it.
The sandwich was absolutely lip-smacking satisfying, although slightly lacking in Pesto sauce. The crepe was fluffy, light, drizzled in delicious chocolate and topped with a scoop of sweet Vanilla ice cream. The Pain au Chocolat et Pistaches tasted freshly-baked, and was surprisingly light despite being filled with chocolate and topped with powdered sugar and pistachios. Finally, the orange juice was fresh, but unfortunately a bit too warm for our liking; some ice was definitely called for.
While the service was quick and pretty impressive, it was slightly over the top. At times it felt like we were being rushed with our tableware being lifted the second we put our forks down.
All in all, Paul offered us a lovely, authentically French dining experience. The service, despite being a bit too pushy, was quick and efficient and the food’s quality, taste and look were unbelievably close to perfection. À bientôt, Paul; we’re coming back soon.