Straight out — Food is not, by a long shot, the best thing about living in Egypt. I hope to be able, as this blog continues, to write about some of the more successful dishes and ingredients here. In the meantime, I’m still compiling the memories and notes of our holiday in France.
The absence of a great cuisine here in Cairo increases, exponentially, the anticipation of going to a country like France. So where to eat on our first meal? Antony picked me up at the airport in Paris, and we drove south towards Nîmes. When we have made this journey previously, with a UK departure and a crossing thanks to the marvel of the Channel Tunnel, we can usually reach Burgundy — perhaps driving as far as Beaune — in one day. Knowing we could get father with a starting point of Paris, I began looking at the restaurant guides, targeting the area just south of Lyon, which is the psychological watershed in the north/south France divide. The inevitable traffic congestion and the scary tunnel through Lyon have made the city a rampart that must be breached.
As I scanned the guidebooks the obvious choice leapt out. La Pyramide in Vienne. How could a couple of Cairenes not stay there?
We pulled up to the secure car park (one of Antony’s requirements for ease of mind) after driving at a snail’s pace in a traffic queue for 45 minutes once we had left the motorway. For a Friday evening, Vienne seemed strangely busy. We checked into our room, which was adequate, although red peppers as a decor theme is not my idea of restful. It vaguely reminded me of a Mexican restaurant. Fortunately it wasn’t too long before dinner. Other rooms are more tranquil themes — lavender, thyme, laurel.
A history of the restaurant conveniently placed in the room reveals the eaterie has been a food mecca since the 1920s. In Michael Korda’s Charmed Lives, he mentions that Sir Alexander Korda would travel out of his way to dine at La Pyramide in the 1930s. It’s been brought back to life by Patrick Henriroux, who has earned two stars from the Guide Michelin. The room bumpf also alerted us to the kitchen store attached to the hotel. What a great idea! If foodies are showing up, they’ll surely drop a few quid on nifty kitchen gadgets. We did.
At reception, Antony had picked up a brochure which explained the earlier traffic jam — we had arrived in the midst of the Vienne Jazz Festival, an event well know to aficionados. While waiting for the lift to take us down to dinner, a cool dude ambles up, humming. Antony asks, “Are you a jazz man?” Cool dude with very long dreadlocks replies in an American accent, “Yes I am,” and continues humming.
We are seated in a wonderful shaded courtyard surrounded by hotel buildings and roofed by the spread of massive plane trees. Cool dude and two others are seated at a table next to us — although there is plenty of space between tables and conversations can’t be overheard. Antony thumbs the program and whispers, “That’s Bobby McFerrin.” I look blank. “You know, he did Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Oh! I get it. And he’s eating his pre-performance meal (large gambas). The terrace fills up with other travelers stopping on their way south as well as the gentry of Vienne, or jazz lovers, out for a special night.
We order the house aperitif — Champagne with raspberry juice and eau de vie of thyme. Lovely. It begins to sink in that we are truly in France… no car noise, no pollution, no paralyzing heat. We try to make sense of the wine list and ask for guidance in choosing a wine of the northern Rhône. We ended up with a sumptuous Côte Rôtie, which begins our long slow slide into the pace of life in the south of France. We opt for the middle menu — not the grande bouffe, neither the restrained market menu.
The first course is a lobster tail encased in some kind of gelatin shell. Next to it a layered salad of avocado, grapefruit in Campari and rouges zébra tomatoes (which are green striped). The lobster wrapped in a translucent gelatin sheath looked somewhat strange. It all tasted good — a nice balance of fresh flavors which complemented each other. But give me a steamed Maine lobster any day, shell and all.
The next course is a ravioli of egg yolk, summer truffles, fresh shell beans, artichokes in a bouillon with an emulsion of olive oil. A fork bursts the ravioli pastry allowing the egg yolk to run into the hot broth — wonderful! The earthiness and meatiness of the beans contrasts with the richness of the egg yolks, all perfumed by the truffles. A wildly successful first course. I love fresh beans, and this is undoubtedly the most elegant and sophisticated dish involving beans I have ever had.
At this point Antony and my meals diverge. I choose the fish course, a filet of Saint Pierre (John Dory) with a tapenade of sweet olives served on a bed of red, yellow and green tomatoes with thyme. The fish is perfectly cooked, but the acidity of the tomatoes overwhelms its delicate flavor. The dish is neither balanced nor exciting — it could just as easily have been a piece of fish with a fresh tomato sauce. It certainly looked pretty, but that’s not enough to save it.
Antony eschews the fish for the meat option: veal with girolles and confit shallots, potatoes and young beetroot cooked in sherry vinegar. He was pleased and said the meat was very tender.
Then comes the cheese trolley! Splendid. Truly wonderful cheeses from the region as well as the famous ones of France — Camembert, Conté, Roquefort — along with all the accoutrements, dried figs, jams, walnuts.
A fruit dessert completes the meal. I’m not much of a dessert person, and fruit desserts are really not my favorite so I didn’t relish this. Strawberries with rhubarb on a fresh cheese biscuit with strawberry and violet sorbet. Again, the balance is off. The dish is too acidic and dominated by the taste of red fruit.
Throughout the meal, the service was somewhat fussy — we must have been offered bread ten times — and by three or four different waiters. In truly great restaurants, the waiters know how to help you enjoy your evening, with a comment here or there, facilitating interaction. At La Pyramide there were clearly some well-trained and professional waiters, but others seemed awkward and others clearly lacked experience.
I would return to La Pyramide if the journey called for a stop in Vienne. Next time, however, I would order more carefully, probably à la carte. The first course was exceptional, and the cheese board memorable; the setting is very beautiful and convenient. Nevertheless, there is something somewhat self-conscious and forced about the entire ambience, the food and the service.