My Lunch Date With Chef Lek: The Man Bringing Authentic Thai to Cairo
Birdcage has invited SceneEats to their restaurant for a one of a kind dining experience: the signature menu by the hosted Thai Chef, Worawut Lek.
I sat at my desk surrounded by my usual mess of wires, scrolling through my writing list of the day. Maybe I'll order an early lunch today.
I had just taken a sip of my second coffee of the day, when I heard a call.
Birdcage has invited me, well they invited SceneEats over to their restaurant for a one of a kind dining experience, to experience the signature menu by the hosted Thai Chef, Worawut Lek.
The chef had come all the way from Semiramis’s sister hotel in Thailand, Hua Hin Intercontinental and he was serving his limited edition menu up until June 10th, and I got to be one of the first people to have his food.
I was so dumbfounded when I learned that I'll be attending. First of all, I’m wonderful at being handed things to write, great actually, being in a room with people, let alone people with way more experience… oh god. Second of all, I was very much not dressed for the part, not at all. I slapped whatever makeup I had on my face, and got in my car, did a silent prayer and headed to Semiramis.
While roaming through the busy streets of downtown Cairo is a new fresh level of hell, it was very much worth it. When I finally made it to Birdcage, I was delighted.
I was greeted by the very friendly staff and didn’t feel as left out as I thought I would. I was immediately acknowledged and escorted to the private tasting room.
The room was dimly lit, with neatly placed eating mats all around, all of which were equipped with chopsticks, a fork and a spoon - which I was very grateful for. As much as I enjoy eating with chopsticks, I would rather not struggle today, I’m here for the food, nothing else.
In the middle of the quaint space sat an 8 person table. Behind us, perched on a mantle, was a sitting Budhha statue. I personally liked the touch, but I can see a bunch of people coming in and looking at it weirdly. On the table sat a few beautiful blue ceramic urns, native to thai ceramic work, also a very nice touch.
In the corner of the room, I could see a small table piled high with what I assumed was extra cutlery, but ended up being intricately wrapped souvenirs. I was actually surprised at the end of the event when one of the organizers handed me one. Like, wait, for me?
Everyone was finally seated, and an air of friendly conversation and small talk emerged, I had already made some acquaintances. Chattering continued in the small room, as more and more people kept coming in. We needed to move, this table will not be able to withstand 14 hungry people. The organizers acted quickly and started preparing another table outside for us to have our second course in.
That’s when he came in, Chef Lek. The man was small with inviting eyes, it quickly became apparent that he does not speak a lick of English. He however, made the effort to memorize a few sentences to greet us, which I personally thought was very endearing.
With the first course, we all had gotten the idea that while he doesn’t speak much, his food speaks in volumes. We were first greeted with a complementary bite, a small fried egg roll, stuffed with chicken.
The egg roll was crunchy, delectable and a perfect bite coupled with their pomegranate-ginger welcome drink. That drink was incredibly balanced, and a great palette opener to start your meal with. Plus, it tasted amazing, sweet and spicy, I had already downed it by the time everyone was cheering.
Our first course came on one long plate, 4 chicken patties with a sweet and sour sauce. At first bite, I was shocked by the festival of flavors happening in my mouth. There was heat, tang, sweetness and a little acidity.
By the second bite, I had noticed the very stubble yet well placed hints of ginger and lemon grass, which perfectly aligned with the spice coming from the Thai red curry paste. There is nothing that can describe what the addition of thai red curry paste does, it’s not a simple spice but rather, a layered one.
Then came the course I was the most excited for, the Tom Yum soup. I have had Tom Yum virtually everywhere in Egypt, but nothing brought me back to when I visited Thailand in 2016 like this soup did.
Now, everyone knows Tom Yum as the soup that makes you cough and cry, and that is correct, if you’re not crying and blowing your nose, you haven’t had Tom Yum. When the plate came down on the table and I took a whiff of the soup and it burned my nostrils, I knew this would be the real deal.
The soup looked simple but busy, a silky red broth (native to Tom Yum), shrimps, a bamboo shoot, ginger, mushrooms, kaffir leaves and ginger. I tasted the broth first, and there it was, the spice at the back of the throat, aligning with the zing of ginger. My eyes started watering, it was perfect.
I could hear the delighted sounds around me as I started working on the shrimp, the tail was still on, so I had to fish it out and eat it by hand, which is an added layer to the experience. To my shock, it wasn’t even slightly overcooked, it was perfectly delicate and chewy. The mushrooms were a well added factor and the fresh ginger was a happy surprise.
I cleaned my bowl, and happily dabbed off my sweat, and the third dish came in perfect timing. The third course was a fried sea bass in a brown sauce that sort-of looked like peanut sauce at first glance. The plate was scattered with scallops, squid, prawns and pieces of eggplant.
When looking at the next dish, I was a bit overwhelmed, there were alot of elements happening, I didn’t know where to start. I started with the main star of the dish, the seabass. The fish was satiny, savory with a hint of sweetness.
The sauce, oh the sauce. The sauce was very velvety and spicy, it had hints of ginger and lemongrass with a hint of sweetness, the taste was familiar but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The eggplant melted, quite literally melted in my mouth, the prawns were chewy and robust and the scallops were like cotton candy, barely there but when they were, they were luscious, enchanting you with their welcomed texture.
The dish was accompanied with crab fried rice, which was a happy surprise and complimented the spice of the dish very well, and a plate of stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables were simple, flavored with oyster sauce and garlic, and their bite added yet another texture to the dish. Their freshness was needed to complete the dish, it brought everything together.
The last course also confused me upon first inspection. The sweet course consisted of steamed bananas sitting in a pool of coconut milk on a pandan leaf with a small bunch of red berries on a vine next to the dish. I can’t say I have had anything like this my entire life.
Despite my obvious concerned face, I took my first bite. My eyebrows furrowed as I realized the bananas were warm, and had a texture similar to fondant. It took a couple of seconds for my brain to catch up, once it did, I relished the sweet and tangy flavor of the desert.
Before I could realize it, I had cleaned my plate. The dish was warm, it hugged you with a sweet start, coupled with an almost minty aftertaste, then came the third layer of tang from the coconut milk. The small red berries were easily welcomed for their sourness, which easily completed the overall sweet dish.
While I’m not the biggest fan of sweet things, this was the best ending to the day, I still think about that banana.
The overall experience was nothing short of thrilling, every bite was very different from the first, and every single bite had a wide range of textures and flavors. Nothing was flat, nothing was one-toned. I walked away happily full, and yearning to come back.
Chef Lek came back to an applauding table, everyone had a huge smile on their face and leaned back into their chairs from being so full. He had done an outstanding job, worthy of a standing ovation.
I really do believe that this is one of those once in a lifetime deals, and you’d be seriously lacking if you don’t try it out for yourself.