Bite Me

Bob's Your Uncle
Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Foodism is here. I mean, when you can dial a hotline and have delivered to your home an Australian wagyu beef fillet, an entire salmon, a kilo of sushi grade tuna, or a dozen Clevedon Coast oysters on the half shell, you know that Cairo is changing. New, hip restaurants and clubs are opening all over town, and budding, upwardly mobile foodists are both keeping them in business and investing in the businesses themselves. Justine, the Automobile Club, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs? Forget it. It's not your daddy's food scene anymore.

Which is what made the Bobby Chinn media bacchanalia such a gag-inducing spectacle. It was all about the branding.

A telling feature of Egypt's newfound foodist culture is a social media smorgasbord where consumers can graze a wide range of food-related tweets and texts that are on offer daily. This past week, in advance of the Chinn dinner at the Fairmont Nile Towers, Bob's people pushed it to the max-which is why he's a celebrity chef and you're not.

It's also why lots of young Cairenes got all pumped up for the return of the prodigal son. Chef Chinn, who is half Egyptian, half Chinese-American, has made a name for himself as a bad boy, and people were excited to see what he could do. Thing is: Bob's not so reckless anymore. His menu was closer to culinary classic jazz than the house party they were hoping for.

It also didn't have much to do with Vietnam, which was a bit weird. To be fair, Chinn's style is not Vietnamese per se but rather Californian/French with some Asian influences. In Hanoi and Saigon (both in Vietnam), where he has opened namesake restaurants, the locals go to his places when they want to splurge on "western food."

Chinn has written a cookbook on Vietnamese food called Wild Wild East and he hosts a television show called World Café Asia. The event itself was meant to help re-launch the Fairmont Nile City's failed Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Bleu: so customers should be forgiven if they weren't expecting to see dishes such as stuffed pigeon and crème brûlée. The eclectic menu was more con-fusion than fusion.

It was also competent, pleasant and above all, safe. With most of the items coming directly from his own restaurant menus, the man did his job; he knows how to cook for sure.

The warm up acts were seafood ceviche with a cilantro walnut pesto; squid "fettuccine" with Tobiko caviar and crème fraiche; a Moroccan beet salad-all plated with confidence if not flare. At the end of the meal when the chef entered the dining room he received a polite round of applause, but we weren't standing on our chairs screaming and waving our lighters back and forth.

If you are playing along at home you'll have noticed a misstep here, "seafood ceviche." Is there any other kind? A ceviche by definition is fish marinated in lime or lemon juice and Cairene diners are sophisticated enough to know what it is.

Bobby, you underestimate us.

Similarly, when I opted for the squid fettuccine, the waiter felt compelled to explain to me that "it was not really pasta" but squid run through some sort of extruder and made to look like pasta. Did he think I was going to faint dead away if this showed up on my plate unawares? It took the entire ounce of fun out of the experience.

The headliner was roasted salmon on wasabi mashed potatoes. My piece of fish was cooked to perfection; crispy skin with charred, fatty flavor, and sushi-like on the inside, more of a sear than a roast really. I thought it was lovely, but you can see what I mean about playing it safe.

A newbie might find wasabi mashed potatoes exciting, but I remember first eating something like this back in the mid-1990s at the Sugar Club, the Notting Hill restaurant created by the New Zealand chef Peter Gordon. Heck, I make my own Dijon mustard mash at home all the time. Chinn's wasabi version was great, but not the sort of thing that's going to rock your night.

The point is that Cairo has plenty of true foodists these days. Many of them were sitting at tables around us, pondering their EGP 500 per person meals, while listening to a saxophone player render muzak editions of Sinatra songs. Most enjoyed the evening, but many also wished there had been a DJ laying down some dubstep tracks that made their taste buds jump up and boogie.