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Dokki, Cairo, Egypt.
Zein: Relaxing Café for Ramadan
Cairo cafés often conjure up images of overcrowded, noisy rooms filled with smoke and aloof wait staff. Especially during Ramadan, when everyone is out all night gorging on mezzas and shisha, finding a calm café with character can be a challenge. Zein Café in Dokki is sweet, simple and satisfying.
The large glass doors of Zein Café are covered with white decals of check marks and smiley faces as if to say, ‘Yes, you found Zein and aren’t you glad you did?’
Bold red walls stretch up to high ceilings, which help to keep both smoke and noise levels surprisingly low despite the fact that only a handful of tables were empty at the time of this review. The atmosphere is clean and comfortable. Even though only a few pillowed benches are found and most seating is in low-backed wooden armchairs, you immediately get the impression that Zein is the type of place where you can stay and relax for a while.
During Ramadan, a 40LE-minimum charge is enforced and to help you meet the rate, a special menu of drinks, mezzas, main courses and sohour items are available. A 12LE karkadeh arrives at the table in a small carafe with foam-like lemon juice. The presentation is cute, but the mixture is weak enough to notice and once the pink foam settles, Zein’s karkadeh wasn’t great value for money. 14LE seems rather too high for a very standard cup of Nescafé. The café’s meassel shisha (7LE) was strong and the shisha attendant made frequent rounds throughout the evening.
Fatoush (16LE) and chicken liver (24LE) are served in darling black and red bowls, and though the servings were slightly on the small side, both dishes were pleasant. A healthy sprinkling of sumac atop the otherwise minimally dressed fatoush made for an exceptionally bright, crisp salad. The chicken liver was fresh and flavourful, sweetened with sautéed onions and peppers. A moment less on the heat could have produced a silkier texture, but the liver was by no means the grainy mess that we sometimes encounter.
Chicken shawerma fatta (40LE), served with bell peppers and a healthy dollop of tomeya was full of flavour though a little on the greasy side; it could have used a bit more vinegar to offset this effect. While certainly not the best rendition of fatta that we’ve sampled, for a café entrée it was just fine and there was plenty of it. If it hadn’t been for this heavy, sleep-inducing meal, we could have stayed for hours in this comfortable café.
Cafés in Cairo are a dime a dozen, and competition is pretty brutal. That usually translates into some rather strange themes and gimmicks across the capital. In Mohandiseen, Bon Bini follows suit with a kitschy jazz vibe.
With two floors and an outdoor seating area, the café is spacious with a peculiar variety of seating areas,making the whole place interestingly asymmetrical. Although the furniture seems dated and worn, the running jazz theme creates a charming, nostalgic feel. Jazz band statues and antique books give a purposefully vintage edge to the venue.
The polite and courteous staff are well versed in the menu. Akin to the typical Cairene café scene, the menu is awash with a wide variety of sandwiches, pizzas and entrees, along with a shisha section.
For appetisers, we ordered tomato soup (17.95LE) and a fried Texas platter (18.95LE) – fries with chilli cheese sauce. For our mains we ordered one Verona pizza (49.95LE) topped with chicken, roast beef slices, olives, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, alongside a chef filet (74.95LE) which transpired to be a beef strip stuffed with mushrooms and roast beef, topped with a butter sauce.
First on our table came the extraordinarily hot soup and fries; so hot in fact, that we had to let both dishes cool off for a few minutes. Served with crispy croutons and a thick dollop of cream, the generously-sized soup was full of flavour. Despite being topped with a thick layer of cheese, the fries were well-cooked and surprisingly light.
Later, both the pizza and filet proved to be even better. The pizza was large enough to satisfy two, and boasted a thick, fluffy base. The fillet was cooked to perfection, without sacrificing the meat’s tenderness, and laced with a rich, flavourful butter sauce. The sides of fresh vegetables and smooth mashed potatoes were a welcome addition to the meal.
For dessert, we enjoyed a cold fruit crepe (19.95LE), made with apples and bananas and topped with Nutella. Unlike the conventional serving of crepes, our crepe was laid flat – as opposed to folded - topped with the fresh, ripe ingredients.
Although the quirky decor and unusual ambience may not suit everyone’s taste, Bon Bini is a great venue for casual outings – and the kitchen certainly delivers.