With France’s national day upon us, Penelope Walsh explores how the cuisine has filtered onto menus in Dubai.
French national day, known as Bastille Day, is coming up this week on Monday July 14, and will be celebrated across the UAE. Akin to a declaration of French independence, it celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, as an event that resulted in the beginning of the French Revolution, and (after a period as bloody as the French interpretation of rare steak), the nation’s subsequent rebirth as a republic. It is an event in history that arguably also revolutionised French food culture, and consequently, international restaurant culture and not just because the guillotine put an end to Marie Antoinette’s cake-eating habits. The French Revolution resulted in hoards of unemployed chefs (who had previously worked in the kitchens of noble houses) opening eating establishments where ordinary people could eat; the first democratising of eating out, and the birth of what we know today as the ‘restaurant’. Exploring the vast, varied and extensive effect French food and dining culture has had on the world’s finest restaurants, we’ve taken a look at classic French recipes, to see how they have taken their place on menus in Dubai and been reinterpreted in a variety of fairly unexpected ways.
This classic French dessert is a spongy little sweet cake soaked in a mix of sugar syrup and sugar-cane based beverage. French they may be, but it is certainly in the spirit of Choix Patisserie and Restaurant par Pierre Gagnaire to give this humble cake a little twist. In this instance, it is a thoroughly Emirati twist, with the ‘baba Dubai’, which is made with a camel milk panna cotta, saffron cake, tea-soaked dates and (of course) a little gold leaf.
Choix Patisserie and Restaurant par Pierre Gagnaire, Intercontinental Dubai Festival City (04 701 1136).
One of the most ubiquitously copied and rolled out staples of French pastry, according to one argument, it is Marie Antoinette that we have to thank for this flaky, buttery treat reaching France. Supposedly the crescent-shaped ‘kipferl’ was an Austrian predecessor of the simple croissant and the Austrian-born queen brought the pastry and popularised it in France. While it may be a Japanese bakery, Yamanote Atelier in Dubai prides itself on using old artisanal French baking techniques such as longer, slower proofing, for maximum flakiness in their croissants. The croissants here also come in an innovative range of flavours, including a rose and pistachio-frosted recipe.
Yamanote Atelier, Al Wasl Square, Al Wasl Road (04 388 1811).
Escargot, aka snails
Snails, perhaps the most famously grimace-inducing dish in the French repertoire, it is traditionally served with a thorough dousing of garlic and parsley butter and in their shells. Trust us, with enough garlic, parsley and butter, pretty much anything is palatable and if snails are cleaned and prepared nicely, you might even be quite taken by the squidgy-mushroom-like texture. Or not. But, if you’re tempted to try, French restaurant Traiteur is one of very few restaurants in the city that serves these babies in an entirely classic style, so head here to give it whirl.
If you’re feeling brave, of course.
Traiteur, Park Hyatt Dubai, Deira (04 317 2222).
Crêpes, we know as the French answer to the pancake: thin, sometimes smothered in cheese, and everywhere you turn on the streets of Paris. Galettes, however, are specific to the northern region of France, and as such, are Brittany’s answer to the crêpe: made with buckwheat flour and stuffed with something savoury (i.e. almost always smothered in cheese). Located inside The Dubai Mall, at new café Markette Restaurant & Crêperie the signature is a selection of sweet and savoury crêpes and galettes, making this a good spot to try the Briton special. Did we mention they’re smothered in cheese.
Markette Restaurant & Crêperie, The Dubai Mall, Downtown Dubai (04 339 8173).
This Provençal classic takes inspiration from its Mediterranean environment, and is a flat bread-meets-pizza typically topped with a combination of caramelised onion and anchovy. The dish is actually well represented in Dubai, and available at three different Provençal-inspired concepts in the emirate: La Petite Maison in DIFC, La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie on Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, as well as the popular Oscar’s Vine Society on Sheikh Zayed Road.
La Petite Maison, DIFC (04 439 0505). La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai (04 428 6969). Oscar’s Vine Society, Crowne Plaza Hotel Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 331 1111).
Pot au feu
Originally a hearty French stew, pot au feu contains pretty much every beef cut imaginable, with bone marrow being something of a must in there, all in a clear, meaty broth. Since this rustic one-pot dish was made over an open fire, the dishes name literally means ‘pot of fire’. Many believe the Vietnamese national dish of beef noodle soup ‘pho’ (pronounce ‘fuh’, like the French ‘feu’) is actually a corruption of the French dish. Arguments made in this favour point out that the dish only really crops up in Vietnamese cooking culture around the 1950s, the heyday of French colonial involvement in the country.
The rather fancy French-Vietnamese restaurant fusion concept Vôi, neatly and nicely brings this little culinary piece of history to the fore with its own novel interpretation: ‘pot of pho’. This version of the dish contains rice noodles, like the Vietnamese recipe, and bone marrow, like the French.
Vôi, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Palm Jumeirah (04 453 0444).
Also known in English parlance as gratin potatoes, this dish is thought to originate from the Dauphiné region of France (hence the name). The area borders Italy, and the Alps, so perhaps it is no surprise that this dish is a hearty, winter affair of sliced potatoes baked in a cream sauce. One of the best variants of this now popular dish we’ve tried in Dubai is the potato gratin at La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, since the potatoes are finely sliced, like layer upon layer of leaves. A cream soaked potato mille feuille, if you will.
La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard, Downtown Dubai (04 428 6969).
The French invention of tartare is traditionally a combination of raw, premium beef steak, diced and mixed together with capers, parsley, raw onion and (also raw) egg yolk. For the original steak version of this dish, we’d recommend Rivington Grill’s recipe. However, since the early days of raw beef eating, the ‘tartare’ concept has since filtered down onto menus and influenced the use of raw fish in European restaurants. For an excellent example of European-style raw fish, try the salmon tartare at Monaco-born haunt Sass Café now open in DIFC.
Rivington Grill, Madinat Jumeirah, Umm Suqeim (04 366 6464). Sass Café, Al Fattan Currency House, DIFC (04 352 7722).