While today, Bastille Day, festivities will be taking place all over France; concerts, military parades, balls and firework displays that will continue long into the night, there is no need for the day to pass unmarked here in the UAE. We are blessed with a fantastic array of French dining options, and what better way to honour the liberation of a nation, than with an appreciation of its cuisine. The popularity and pre-eminence of French food is long-standing; in the early 1800s the elaborate creations of Marie-Antoine (Antonin) Careme won the country international prestige and his work helped establish "la grande cuisine" that would dominate the culinary stage for years to come. Auguste Escoffier, chef, restaurateur, writer and known to many as the "emperor of the world's kitchen" both continued and refined this legacy of haute cuisine and ensured that in the early 20th century, gourmets from all over the world made trips to Paris to sample what was agreed to be the finest food. Today, while the title of the world's greatest cuisine is a matter of debate, French food remains not only highly esteemed but hugely popular.
This is surely due to its many incarnations. It has always been about far more than just fine dining for the French, who take equal delight in bread and cheese, the bistro food of provincial France (pot-au-feu, blanquette de veau, paté) or a simple plate of bavette et frites eaten in a brasserie. As the French and indeed lovers of their cuisine will agree, French food is very much about a feeling of gratification; making eating memorable, appreciating ingredients and slowly savouring every mouthful. Here is our pick of the best French restaurants and cafes in the UAE.
InterContinental Dubai Festival City
04 701 1199
Best for: fine dining "En ballotine marbled with duck breast and a purée of fig; salad of dandelion, acidic chanterelles and jelly of duck consommé infused with burnt bread. Seared mille-feuille of gingerbread with a marmalade..." And so the menu description for the foie gras starter continues for a further 15 words. Simple, rustic fare this is not. But then Gagnaire is not a simple cook, mais non; he is a culinary artist, an epicurean chef of the highest order and customers from all over the world flock to his restaurants for this reason. A meal at Reflets is about far more than satisfying hunger; it is a culinary adventure, with each course comprising of an abundance of tiny dishes that can at first seem rather befuddling. This is not the place to visit if you want to have an uninterrupted, in-depth conversation; primarily because the food, in all its varying guises, is likely to be far more interesting than anything your companions have to say and secondly, given the prices, you will want to study and remember every bite. It is best to just sit back and prepare to delight in the culinary theatre that will appear before you, delivered with faultless service of course. Dinner for two, excluding service, from around Dh1,350
Park Hyatt Dubai
04 317 2222
Best for: romance The setting at Traiteur is nothing short of stunning. Dramatic high ceilings and a striking staircase dominate the interior, but if you really want to up the romantic ante, settle down at a table on the outside terrace, where the dappled lights and views of the creek are enough to have even the most hardened cynic cooing over their chateaubriand. If the location still fails to seduce, then the food, service and reasonable prices surely will. Late last year, Franck Detrait took over as chef de cuisine at Traiteur. With 12 years' experience working in French restaurants, he quickly made his presence felt by eschewing modern European, fine dining influences and rebranding the restaurant as a mid-priced French brasserie. The food has benefited from this refocus. The menu is split into two parts: a section offering more contemporary dishes (complete with foams, jellies et al) and a 'Classiques' list, showcasing robust, traditional food; steak tartare, sole meunière, and a notable starter of escargots that oozes hot, salty garlic butter. The service here is also excellent; attentive and knowledgeable yet unobtrusive. Whether you visit with a viewing to wooing (without flashing too much cash) or simply to satisfy a craving for bouillabaisse, Traiteur won't disappoint. Dinner for two, excluding service, from around Dh540
Hamdan Street, Abu Dhabi
02 633 3555
Best for: a traditional bistro feel With its cheerful red and white tablecloths, hearty Gallic food and well-priced menu, Le Beaujolais is a great find. The food is unpretentious, simple even, but all the better for it. Coq au vin and beef bourguignon are as wholesome and flavourful as you could possibly hope for and the whispers that the steak (served with frites, of course) is the tastiest in town could well be true. The restaurant is deservedly busy and frequented by many French expatriates, an endorsement that speaks volumes for its quality and authenticity. Service is friendly and attentive and a visit here is made all the more pleasant by the presence of the ever charming Maître d', Bunny. Dinner for two, excluding service, from around Dh200.
Le Meridien, Airport Road, Dubai
04 217 0000
Best for: impeccable service and style In mood and general ambience, Cafe Chic more than lives up to its name. It is a sleek and sophisticated kind of place, with assured service to match. The food here is good, not exceptional, but enjoyable none the less, particularly if you like your meal presented with a modern art edge. Dishes are colourful and complex, featuring smudges of purée, building blocks of jelly and drizzles of this and that. It is in terms of service though that the restaurant really shines. Cafe Chic prides itself on paying attention to detail; many places do this, you may argue, but few with such finesse as here. Linen napkins flutter onto waiting laps, a dainty amuse bouche of escargots bathed in foam magically appears and a elaborate menu leaves you plenty to ponder over. Sebastien Michea is as discerning a restaurant manager as they come; knowledgeable and astute, he happily navigates his way through the restaurant, offering recommendations and charming his customers. One to visit when you want to be well looked after. Dinner for two, excluding service, from around Dh665
Shangri-La, Abu Dhabi
02 509 8555
Best for: seasonal, out-of-town treats Living under the constant UAE sun makes it hard to remember that there's such a thing as a growing season. Luckily, there's always a reminder at Bord Eau, a fine dining restaurant that chases asparagus season and monitors when the first batch of peaches is ripe, and with seasonal new products (the menu changes four times a year) come new creations by chef Jean Hurstel. The menu currently includes a watermelon gazpacho, octopus and fresh cherries with almond ice cream. A chef's tasting is highly recommended for those who are incapable of choosing and possess a large appetite. While modern twists and skilful plating techniques are present, so is the classic French grounding in the unchanging Escoffier part of the menu - showcasing French tradition through some of Georges Auguste Escoffier's recipes.
A must-eat, regardless of season or dish pairing, are the kitchen's labour-intensive truffled mashed potatoes and the egg-shaped, hot chocolate covered Chocolate Extravaganza. Dinner for two, excluding service, from around Dh450
Sheikh Zayed Road, 1st Interchange, Dubai
04 343 6444
Best for: traditional cakes and baguettes
While the shiny red and gold interior may not be to everyone's taste, if you ignore this and close your eyes, then the smells from the plethora of treats on offer at The French Cafe will almost transport you to the rue Cler.
From miniature madeleines, to fragile, sugar-dusted mille-feuilles and elaborate gateaux carefully dressed in Chantilly cream and glazed fruit, this bakery pays a respectful homage to the art of the old-fashioned French patissier. Silver trolleys are piled high with bons-bons whimsically trussed up in layers of cellophane and there are ice-cream cakes, tarts and delicate biscuits in abundance. The selection of pastel macaroons doesn't quite rival that available at Le Nôtre, but they are worthy of a taste nonetheless.
The piece de resistance, though, is the baguettes. Although the olive and sesame rolls may look tempting, even the most discerning of French bread lovers will be satisfied with the 'Traditional Baguette'; a perfect balance of crisp, crunchy exterior and moist, chewy centre. A worthy solution to the seemingly impossible search for a good French loaf. Traditional baguette, Dh6, croissants from Dh6, brioche feuillette, Dh11, slice ice-cream cake, Dh18
Additional reporting by Elysia Smith