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U Bistro & Bar: High-End Dining at its Finest in Zamalek
When the great Zamalek institution that is, La Bodega, closed down last year, speculation quickly followed as to what was to become of the fantastic space. Though it took some a while, U Bistro & Bar stepped forward with the promise of a unique dining experience – a promise that was more than satisfied at the time of our visit.
Those that were familiar with La Bodega might be taken aback by how different the space really looks and the obvious amount of effort exerted in forming a unique aesthetic. That's not to say that it's gaudy; in fact, all and any elegance at U Bistro & Bar is subtle and seems lived-in, with blacks and browns defining the chic, sleek appearance, while pieces of artwork and a huge classical mural at one end of the restaurant adding more flamboyant touches.
After plenty of indecision – the menu boasts some truly inspired-sounding dishes – we kicked off what transpired to be a top-notch meal with a Smoked Salmon Caesar Salad (80LE) which was a perfectly crisp, cool and light starter on a warm evening. Everything was noticeably fresh, with the lettuce boasting a distinct but subtle sweetness that played as a perfect base for the other ingredients, especially the generous and quality smoked salmon.
There are several interesting starters, including a scallop dish served with shrimp, leeks and cream cognac sauce (190LE) and foie fras with a port wine jelly (190LE). We went for a classic of northern Italian cuisine, Vitello Tonato (95LE) – a cold Piedmontese dish that brings together thin slices of roasted veal with tuna sauce as well as olives, sun-dried tomatoes, capers and pine nuts, all topped with fresh arugula. Tuna sauce is usually made by simmering fresh or canned tuna until cooked, in white wine, cider vinegar, white onion and garlic, before being pureed with olive oil, vegetable oil and egg yolks into a mayonnaise-like consistency. Unfortunately, this tuna sauce was a little more watery than it should have been and lacked the complexity of a combination that brings together many strong, complimentary flavours. However, the veal was of a noticeably good quality and the portion served was very generous.
When it comes to mains, again, there are plenty of inspired-sounding dishes, but in testing the kitchen's execution with dishes a little closer to home, we tried the slow-cooked, Moroccan-spiced lamb shank (195LE) which was nothing short of outstanding. Served with incredibly light and fluffy couscous, the lamb was also generous in portion and was cooked to a perfect tenderness. The seasonal vegetables were a nice, safe side but little in number, while the roasted almonds added a little textural touch and a flavourful one, too.
We also tried the Rossini beef fillet (275LE), which, in keeping with all other dishes, was surprisingly large in portion. We're not complaining – it's just that high-end dining largely follows the less is more approach. Not U Bistro, though; the beef fillet is huge, and is presented folded up – it's not as peculiar as it sounds – with a small cutlet of foie gras, which was perhaps a little undercooked, as not all of its fat had cooked down. Alongside delicious sliced truffles and small globules of port wine sauce, though, it added a decadent, sweet touch to the dish. The quality fillet, meanwhile, was cooked to a perfect medium as requested and the side of potato gratin served with the dish was deliciously creamy; overall, it brought a huge range of different flavours together effortlessly.
As the evening progressed, and more guests arrived, an easy bustle developed around the restaurant, to the backdrop of music that wavered between folksy-inspired lounge music, to higher tempo electronic music that crawled a little too close to a club ambiance at times as dessert beckoned.
We ended with a dessert that put a small twist on a French classic. U Bistro's Crème Brûlée (60LE) doesn't feature the traditional rich custard, but a more light, soft cream sitting on a bed of crumbled Italian biscuit. It's a much lighter take on the traditional version and the addition of the biscuits keeps things interesting with what can otherwise be a one-note eat. One thing that U Bistro keeps the same, however, is the hard layer of caramel which is every bit as satisfying in its crackle as you'd want it to be.
In addition to the fantastic food, another thing that left a big impression was the level of service. The staff was incredibly and unobtrusively attentive, while the kitchen was impressively prompt, and cocktails and alcoholic options are aplenty. With that in mind, consistency is the key for U Bistro's long term success – it ticks all of the boxes for contemporary high-end dining, but we don't think we're the only ones that wish that it was a just tad more inexpensive.
La Bodega is a staple on the Cairo restaurant scene. Cairenes of allsorts see the history in its walls and the years gone by. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Over the last few months, however, rumours have surrounded La Bodega is to close down. So, think of this as an exercise in nostalgia.
On the first floor of a grand old Zamalek building in 26th of July Street, La Bodega is a high-ceilinged, warm setting with lots of deep woods and stand-out furniture pieces. With three distinct areas – the restaurant, the bar and a lounge in a closed-off room towards the back – we chose a dining table with a banquet on one side, where our group of six settled in for a laid back meal.
The menu is diverse and couldn’t really be narrowed down to a single cuisine, with choices such as chicken curry, Algerian couscous with lamb and rabbit a la bourguignon on offer. From the array of appetisers, we chose the beef Carpaccio (55LE), which was thinly sliced and juicy, served with a light dressing drizzled on top. The spicy calamari (42LE) was cooked to a perfect consistency, but was sweeter than it was spicy. A usual hit at La Bodega is the aubergine and halloumi (38LE), and while the ingredients were all there, the dish was unfortunately served a bit cold, which didn’t fare well with the cheese. On the other hand, both salads – the artichoke (33LE) and the goat’s cheese (36LE) – were vibrant and refreshing, though the dressing on the artichoke was a little on the thick side.
We also sampled the mushroom soup (22LE) and French onion soup (21LE); the former was absolutely delicious, being perfectly creamy and full of fresh mushroom flavour. The latter was less enjoyable, though; it was a little too sweet and quite thin.
If you’re looking for a heartier meal, their beef fillet (95LE) has always been a crowd-pleaser, as is there Chinese style chicken (64LE), while the wide choice of fish dishes are also a safe bet.
For dessert, we selected a chocolate soufflé with rum and vanilla ice-cream (30LE). We asked for it without the rum, but regardless, the chocolate pouf of a dessert was probably the downfall of our meal. The whole thing was sloppy, with a suspicious coffee flavour to it.
La Bodega of course serves alcohol, where the most expensive bottle of wine, Jardin Du Nil, goes for 230LE. All cocktails are 55LE and beer is about 20LE a bottle, or 46LE for a Heineken draught.
While the food faltered in certain areas, dining at La Bodega is generally a very pleasant experience. The service is attentive, while the atmosphere itself is sophisticated yet relaxed. The best thing about La Bodega, however, is the fact that not much has changed over the years, and for that we have always been thankful.