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Downtown, Cairo, Egypt.
El Shagara Lounge: Shisha and Sambousak by The Nile
By pure chance or by clever strategic planning, all of the most popular Ramadan tents in Cairo are set up on the Nile with beautiful river views and a fresh breeze. El Shagara Lounge is a clear example. Located on the Nile Corniche on the grounds of the former Sangria, the lounge has been revamped and organised by ByGanz to fulfil the Cairene need for a trendy sohour nightspot.
Predominately decorated in white with a modern take on oriental design, the open-air lounge is flanked by white metal walls in mashrabeya designs and decorated with white teardrop chandeliers emitting a luscious glow. Black wicker chairs carry comfortable cream cushions for low seating, and if you’re really lucky, you might get a low table right on the Nile for an optimum view. A large tree in a corner, obviously the inspiration for the lounge’s name, is adorned in white, cut-out mashrabeya pieces.
LCD screens are dispersed between the tables and play Ramadan TV series on mute, while two large projectors flank opposite corners of the area for prime viewing if there’s an important match on. Despite the refreshing Nile breeze, fans are positioned throughout the space to cool down those extra hot and humid Cairo nights.
Reservations are necessary for El Shagara, even on a weekday, and you have to confirm your reservation a few hours before you arrive. When you do show up, make sure it’s early; as they seem to have a first-come-first-serve basis and all the best seats are snatched up early on. That being said; the front row tables were reserved at the time of our review, and they remained empty well into the night; so perhaps the best tables can be reserved if you're a VIP.
While the cuisine at El Shagara is standard and unimaginative oriental fare, the service is fast and satisfyingly attentive. The shisha waiter will present you with a mother-of-pearl covered wooden box filled with El Shagara’s special shisha flavours, including kiwi, coconut, cappuccino and Red Bull. Within minutes, your shisha will arrive, after which someone will attend to it every ten minutes or so without prompting.
The food arrives equally fast and hot, and ranges from the rather bland foul Alexandrian-style (20LE) to vine leaves (25LE) and a fierce white cheese dip (20LE). The cheese sambousak (25LE) was a huge hit at our table and was constantly re-ordered throughout the night. For dessert, the rice pudding (25LE) is equally awesome. Arriving nicely chilled with the right milk-to-rice consistency, the pudding is a refreshing way to cool down in the heat.El Shagara imposes a minimum charge of 100LE++ per person, which neither includes shisha nor drinks. It’s a place that you’ll go to more for the chic atmosphere and celebrity sighting than for its food, though we do highly recommend the sambousak and rice pudding.
On a quiet square, off the busy Mohy El Din Abu El Ezz Street, a mysterious, dark, basement door conceals the loud buzz of excitement from the crowded bar beyond it. The gold walls contrasted with deep reds and blacks exudes a majestic aura and the large mirrors and gargoyle type masks adorning the walls continued to add to the otherworldly atmosphere.
We swiftly headed to the monumental, fully stocked bar and picked up one of the thick, maroon and gold menus. The pages were printed on textured, organic paper and the writing was accompanied by detailed, supernatural illustrations. The first page was dedicated to an introduction, comparing the chef's and barmen to alchemists as they are able to transform standard, raw materials into 'gastronomical gold'.
With the intention of ordering food, we decided to first order a couple of cocktails; one fruity Cinderella (30LE) and a slightly bitter Virgin Mary (30LE). As their hot drink section is almost non-existent, Alchemy is not the place to haunt if you're hoping for a cosy cup of tea – not that we're complaining.
The food menu is full of inventive, avant garde dishes with an assembly of 'brews' (soups), 'sprightly greens' (salads), 'virtuous temptations' (small bites), 'golden fantasies' (mains) and 'heavenly sins' (desserts).
We requested vols-au-vent (30LE) to start, followed by veal chops (140LE) and stuffed chicken breast (75LE). Although a little tepid, the vols-au-vent were superb; crispy, soft and smooth in all the right places. The chicken also arrived slightly cold, but the stuffing exploded with a medley of flavours. This dish was served with a fresh, spicy salad which was indeed, too spicy to consume.
The veal chops didn't materialise for a long time, either because they were forgotten about or because of the kitchen was overwhelmed with orders. However, when the dish did arrive, we were impressed by the colossal, tender veal chop and the tasty dressing but dismayed that its bed of chunky chips was stone cold.
Alchemy is an original, incomparable and bewitching venue which is unquestionably worth visiting. This places encourages a young, vibrant and sophisticated crowd and would be a great place to socialise at the weekends.