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Maadi, Cairo, Egypt.
El Bandar Café: Low-Brow Maadi Café
To say Cairo has its fair share of mid-range cafés is a gross understatement. Located on the shop, bakery and business-ridden Road 233 of Maadi’s Degla neighbourhood, El Bandar Café finds itself in a popular niche with its enjoyable-yet-mediocre cuisine, an atmosphere heavy with perfumed shisha smoke, and popular radio tunes blasting through the speakers. The café’s crowd is a mixed bag of young socialising Cairenes and seasoned shisha smokers catching up on the evening’s gossip.
Depending on how often you frequent El Bandar Café, service may vary. Newcomers may have to be more insistent than usual to ensure prompt coal refills; while regulars need barely bat an eyelid for the shisha to be refilled.
Years of poor ventilation have rendered the interior of El Bandar Café a bit shabby, albeit in a cheerful way– seat cushions are threadbare in places. Guests can choose to sit on low seating by the entrance or take a seat further inside at one of the several tables.
No-nonsense shisha service is El Bandar’s forté– this means that you shouldn’t expect any fancy fruit and flower concoctions; stick to the regular flavours such as cantaloupe, grape, apple, mint and the like for 12LE a shisha.
Like their tobacco menu, El Bandar’s food is entirely ordinary. Shish tawouk (around 17LE) is served alongside a pile of greasy fries, as is the chicken pané (around 20LE). Entrées and starters include a modest mix of international and local dishes, from sambousak to steak and club sandwiches. The shish tawouk was slightly dry with a substantial garlic bite, and cubes of nicely charred chicken. The chicken pané consists of two deep-fried slabs of chicken, heavily salted and calorie-heavy for those in the mood for a greasy treat.
Having ventured into the dessert section once or twice, we discovered that anything listed with fresh fruit is more likely to feature canned fruit; adjusted expectations make for a more satisfactory experience. Fresh juice selection depends on what produce is in season; if you visit during summer, the highly sugared yet refreshing melon juice is delightfully refreshing.
Keeping with its themes of average everything, prices are mid-range: perhaps a bit more than you would care to spend at such a casual and low-key café; but certainly never enough to prevent you from stopping by for a late-night shisha. An evening with nostalgic pop hits playing on the radio and some good conversation are never ill-spent in El Bandar, where the café wears its bare bones atmosphere proudly, and has earned a loyal following for its honest presentation.
A decent meal in a good location with good weather is an unbeatable, if often unattainable, combination. Ramadan, however, moves the goalposts; the food of a traditional sohour is neither complicated nor difficult, making the whole experience dependant on many other factors.
At Kahwet Leila in Maadi’s the Platform, you get just that. The Lebanese restaurant serves a set sohour menu at 100LE per person; that package includes Ramadan drinks, manakeesh, eggs, foul and falafel, plus a selection of desserts.
The great thing about the Platform is its breezy Nile-side location, paired with its chic aesthetics. Kahwet Leila also serve very decent shisha.
Shami flat bread is served with thyme and olive oil for you to snack on until the food arrives. From the sohour menu selection we opted for a Mouajanat Cocktail, Eggs Mfarakeh, Foul with Homos, Foul with Vegetables, Labneh, Falafel and Osmanliyet Leila from the desserts.
Frustrations flared almost immediately; the flat bread was cold. Seriously, small things like make a world of a difference.
The Foul with Homos didn’t particularly stand out –neither did the Foul with Vegetables – and after a few bites we realised why; they both had the artificial taste of a canned product.
The Labneh, an excellent dish to cool your stomach after heavy and oily foods like foul, had more salty cheese than labneh, which unfortunately took away from the cooling effect.
The Eggs Mfarakeh – scrambled eggs with cut up potato cubes – was equally as lacklustre ,but the Mouajanat Cocktail was the saving grace; around a dozen pieces of different dough and pastries, filled with either cheese, spinach or meat, all fresh, warm and delicious.
The Falafel was also much better than the other dishes, made the Levantine way with homos instead of foul, and served hot and crispy.
After a brief coffee break we proceeded to the dessert, which we believe may be the best thing on their menu. The Osmanliya – konafa topped with pistachio ice cream and syrup – was the definite hit of the night, and a definite must try for any sweett0othed Cairene.
Despite the inconsistency of the quality of the food itself, Kahwet Leila’s strengths in sohour lays primarily in its location – perfect for sohour with family or friends.