“Let’s go out for French food,” said no millennial, ever.
Unless we’re talking about fries or croissants, casual French dining has simply lacked va va voom in recent years.
While the cuisine is still thought of as the epitome of elegance, it's fallen down the ladder in the age of laid-back dining — the stubborn refusal from some chefs to modernise meat-in-brown-sauce recipes has also failed to connect. Messing with a cordon bleu? Sacre bleu!
Maybe the fear of stuffy bistros and penguin-suited waiters has turned off a generation; or the traditional dishes that aren't delivery-driver-friendly. When was the last time a friend WhatsApped you: “Stressful day, need sofa. Bring on Love Island and boeuf bourguignon later.”
The rules around food and how it’s eaten in France were set decades ago and changing them is a no-go — it’s still illegal to eat at your desk, you must go out and do it properly. Restaurants have clung to the notions of chalkboard menus, elongated chef's hats and barking the specials at customers.
While the country still dominates the Michelin Guide (627 restaurants with one star or more, and counting), traditional French fare has made way for younger, snappier options among diners under 40. Thai is taking over. Vietnamese bowls over fans with pho. Even the Americans reinvented le hamburger. How can a duck l’orange or pâté fight for eyeballs on Instagram against woodfired pizzas and vibrant sushi bowls?
Enter Aadel Ouaoua, a Lyon-born chef dragging the ageing cuisine into the 21st century at RSVP restaurant, a new French-Japanese fusion spot in Dubai’s Boxpark.
Where to sit, what to expect
Its location in Boxpark, a neighbourhood known for its relaxed restaurants and cafes, is a sign of things to come. RSVP sits between cool coffee shops, late-night milkshake bars and casual hangouts dishing out fried chicken.
Inside, the restaurant is buzzing. There’s not a free table in sight — and we’re visiting on a Tuesday evening. This is a restaurant that has been open for only two months, might I add.
There are Scandinavian-style chairs and squashy leather booths under a huge abstract painting on the ceiling. There’s an open bar and kitchen, with cheery staff meandering in and out of tables. This is not the French dining of old — although one waiter does push around an enormous cheesecake on a trolley every so often.
The concise menu is anything but traditional. It breaks up the rigid format of starters, mains and desserts, replaced by small and big plates, all designed to share. There are global ingredients and dishes popping up all over it: wagyu beef, Caribbean sauce, sashimi tuna, spring rolls, tom yum curry, guacamole, hummus. There’s pizza, there’s spaghetti, there are even gourmet burgers — one’s wagyu striploin and truffle, the other’s fried cod.
There are also distinctly French plates including escargot, beef tartare and caviar, baked sea bream and French toast for dessert.
We dive into a mix of recommendations from the waiter and chef Ouaoua, who works the floor greeting diners as old friends with a jolly smile on his face.
Out flows the stracciatelle (the chef’s choice) with challah, the tuna avocado tartare (the waiter’s) and the artichoke and Parmesan salad (my own).
The first is supremely cheesy, although it's kept light with raw tomatoes and a punch of vinaigrette split with herb oil; the tuna tartare is excellent, benefiting from salty seasoning and a zing of yuzu. The bold citrus flavour is mirrored by the salad, all enjoyed slathered on top of the challah bread.
Next, it’s snail time. They’re served in their shells and dripping in buttery, garlic goodness. When a recipe works this well, don’t fix it. Chef Ouaoua has mastered a striking presentation style — perhaps French food can elbow its way on to Instagram feeds, after all. I grip a shell in the dinky stainless steel vice it's served with before my dining partner can snap a photo; the waft of garlic is simply too inviting to wait.
The escargot is paired with a giant breadstick plus an aubergine gratin, thinly sliced layers of the vegetable topped with melted Parmesan, pesto and tomato fondue. It’s exactly as it sounds: gooey, a little too rich and a must for cheese addicts.
Soon, mains of lamb chops are served (more on them later) alongside a mountain of matchstick-thin French fries.
We round off the meal with one chocolate fondant and two spoons. It’s velvety molten choc complemented by custard, crumble and vanilla ice cream. It’s seductive and a fierce reminder of how the French never relinquished their mastery in the patisserie section.
When we tell Chef Ouaoua we’ve ordered the lamb chops, he beams and says: “Well, you’re about to be very happy.”
And, as five thick, rosy-pink chops arrive, we break into grins bigger than his.
Marinated in a sticky sweet sauce, blackened on the grill and offering a kiss of spice, they’re to die for. I throw my manners out the window and dive straight in with my hands — we’re not in 1970s Paris, after all. I gnaw every last morsel off the bone, holding the entirely stripped remains as a trophy of the turnaround story being told here.
A chat with the chef
From Lyon, central France, Ouaoua says he discovered his love for cooking when he joined two Michelin-starred restaurant The Square by Phil Howard in Mayfair, London, more than 20 years ago. It brought back fond memories of his childhood spent at his family’s restaurant.
He describes himself as an “unconventional chef” and his passion for exploring dishes from Europe and fusing them with Japanese cooking styles and flavours is evident. He also urges diners to explore all dishes sharing-style, opting for the aforementioned stracciatelle and aubergine gratin for vegetarians, those oh-so-lovely lamb chops or the wagyu striploin for carnivores and the Madagascan vanilla cheesecake for dessert.
“We’ve only been open a month and business has been very strong. We are very happy to see it busy and hope to continue welcoming diners throughout the week,” he says.
“People asked me why we chose to open in Boxpark, I said: ‘Why not?’ So far, the reaction couldn’t have been better.”
With that in mind, if you listen closely, you’ll hear whispers of: “Let’s go out for French food,” ring out once more.
Price point and contact information
Cold and hot small plates as well as salad and sides are priced in the Dh35 to Dh95 ($9.50 to $25) range; mains are Dh75 to Dh310; desserts are Dh50 to Dh60.
RSVP Restaurant is open from 7pm to 11.30pm, from Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations can be made by contacting 04 265 5007 or visiting www.instagram.com/rsvprestaurant
This review was conducted at the invitation of the restaurant