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Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt.
Carmen Pub Bar: Cosy Drinking in Zamalek
Like the Flamenco Hotel that it resides in, Carmen Pub Bar was once considered a Spanish pub, if there ever were such a thing. Nowadays, its faint lighting, calm murmuring atmosphere and innocuous appearance lend it the qualities of an English pub. Perfect for a beer and a quiet chat, non-Flamenco Hotel guests rarely venture to other parts of their drinks repertoire.
The first round of drinks we ordered consisted of a rodeo rider and a Caribbean punch (both 41LE). They looked almost identical, and the barman had to assure us that these were indeed the drinks we had ordered, and that their appearance is merely coincidental. It was hard to believe, considering that the rodeo rider was made of Jack Daniel’s, apple juice, lemon juice and honey, while the Caribbean punch contained gold rum, amaretto, grenadine, lemon juice, pineapple juice and club soda. We’re not exactly sure how the both sets of ingredients came to the same bright pink colour, but they were indeed completely different in taste.
They did have something in common, though; they had little alcohol in them. The rodeo rider in particular tasted like apple juice and honey with a slight bitterness, which would usually have been satisfying on a hot summer’s day, but we were thirsty for sharp, hard alcohol.
A whiskey sour (40LE) is probably the closest thing that fit on the cocktail menu. It fared better, but we already knew that it was also light on the alcohol by its bright yellow colour. On impulse, we also gave the hot chocolate (15LE) a go. Served piping hot with a small cookie, it was far from what you’d get at a decent coffee shop and had an amateurish homemade taste to it; for better and for worse.
Although there are a few burger options on the drinks menu, there’s actually a full selection of food available on a separate menu that you need to ask for. Looking for something more to nibble on than the complimentary cheese, carrots, bread sticks and mysterious cheese dip that you are always given, we ordered the oriental mezza (45LE) and the bookmaker sandwich (46LE).
The former is a feeble collection of two sambousak and kobeba resting on a bed of lettuce in the middle of a platter that holds four dips; yoghurt and cucumber, hummus, tehina and baba ghanough. Although the sambousak and kobeba were hot, crunchy and packed full of meat, it was a ridiculously stark serving. Luckily, a basket of bread meant we were able to keep dipping at the tehina, baba ghanough and hummus, which were fresh, but felt a little watered down in taste. The yoghurt turned out to be a completely useless dip.
As an old American favourite, the bookmaker is essentially a steak sandwich. Served in a large, slightly elongated bun, the pieces of steak were generous but a little closer to being lukewarm than you’d want. As with a lot of burgers and sandwiches you’ll stumble upon in Cairo, the quality and freshness of the bread let down what was otherwise a pleasant sandwich.
This is not the flashiest, classiest, nicest or even cheapest bar you’ll find in Cairo. But there’s a reason Carmen Pub Bar has built up such a loyal clientele: it’s comfortable and the staff are very courteous; two characteristics that many bars in Cairo lack.
While the number of bars and clubs in Cairo is always on the increase, the nightlife scene in the capital is somewhat cliquey congregations, some with expensive minimums and tough door policies.
Not blessed with a bar scene to speak of, the Korba district of Heliopolis has recently welcomed the Garden.
Having suffered at the wrath of Facebook-users of Cairo for an alleged screening process that pries into Facebook profiles, we were glad our photos were up to par, managing to secure our group a table mid-week. Situated at the end of a small alley, right next to the Coffeeshop Company, the Garden is spread over a large outdoor patio and an indoor – but open fronted – bar area.
Complete with bare-brick walls, hanging Edison light bulbs, copious numbers of potted plants and charming bright red shutters on the exterior windows of the building above, the Garden has been meticulously designed to be chic, contemporary and stylish for its mixed-bag of fashionable clientele. With DJ Hishram Zahran on the decks at the time of our visit, the place was filled with chilled out dance beats, at a decent level so that conversation was still a possibility.
Despite being mid-week, the bar was packed, with most of the crowd standing inches away from one another and the staff running around like headless chickens. Choosing from a fully stocked bar and a long list of cocktails, we ordered several Smirnoff vodka (70LE) and Red Bulls (35LE), as well as a glass of chilled, Omar Khayyam white wine (50LE). We also took our own bottle (250LE for bouchon), and were afforded ice buckets to keep it cool.
Whilst we could appreciate the place was busy, waiting around 45 minutes – and having to nag constantly for our drinks every time – seemed a little ridiculous and the same gruelling process applied when ordering the check.
From a full menu of international appetisers, main meals and desserts, we opted for an Oriental sampler as a sharing platter (80LE). Also taking forever to arrive, and served cold, the best thing about the herby sogo’, crisp cheese and meat sambousak, and rich liver, was the attractive presentation on a wooden chopping board. We also spotted a number of impressive-looking, thick hamburgers floating around, whilst hearing complaints regarding long waiting times from a large number of diners.
While the Garden’s energy is buzzing, and the aesthetics are undoubtedly fabulous, the service most certainly is not – yet.