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Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt.
VIP Restaurant and Lounge: Classic French Dining in the Cairo Tower
Opened over a year ago in the recently refurbished Cairo Tower in Zamalek, the VIP restaurant adds its unimaginative name to the short list of restaurants offering fine dining in Cairo. Granted, fine dining usually means exorbitantly expensive, but the VIP restaurant delivers adequately on the promise that its sleek menu offers high quality dining.
Two separate (and very private) elevator trips are needed to arrive at this stratospheric smorgasbord, and once the last double doors open; patrons are greeted by the maitre d’, whose job of finding appropriate seating is made simple by the fact that there isn’t a single bad view in the entire 50-seat restaurant. In fact, we were spoilt for choice since the dining hall was empty save for our own table.
The decor itself is understated: pressed white table cloths lie beneath white Villeroy & Boch plates and silver utensils are awash in the dim glow of candles and table lamps. It’s all very quiet, which makes the diners speak in hushed tones; perfect for a romantic dinner or a dignified business rendezvous.
Clad in a steel studded leather binder, the menu is very straightforward; offering nothing unfamiliar or adventurous. Right on time, the starter of a crispy warm goat’s cheese salad (140LE) arrived. It was light and full of flavour, while the main ingredient made a modest showpiece - although a different dressing other than the ubiquitous balsamic sauce could have elevated this salad to loftier heights.
The main course of veal medallions (140LE) was served with dauphinoise potatoes and sautéed vegetables. It was perfectly cooked, seasoned and ultimately boring. Another main course– the king shrimps Provencal (150LE)– was also well-prepared albeit slightly under-seasoned and dressed with an ineffectual tomato Provencal sauce, leaving us feeling underwhelmed. Finally, the denouement of the meal arrived in the guise of a vanilla crème brûlée, free of any chef twists, innovations or bursts of vivid flavour.
While it certainly was a very good experience overall, we were regrettably aware that our socks were still on our feet. It’s still a very good restaurant, and can provide an excellent setting for a special dinner– it’s just that in the face of recent options like Blue at the Kempinski or Villa Belle Époque in Maadi, the ante must be upped to stay on equal footing.
There is no denying the considerable expertise of the chef; but the menu is too safe. It’s all very prim, proper and polite, like the type of woman that your mother would like you to marry.
Over the last year or so, new restaurants in Cairo have been introducing more and more exotic cuisines to the dining scene, be it Mongolian or even Peruvian with a Japanese twist, leaving classic favourites like Italian and Asian last week’s news. However, recently opened restaurant, Akli, has gone against the tide and specialises in not only one cuisine, but six, across everything from soups to desserts.
Located off Meccas Street in Dokki, Akli is divided into two zones; the ground floor, which has a exposed glass-wall baking room and shawerma station that wasn’t working at the time of our visit, is made for take-out orders, while the top floor is for dining-in. Besides the unfinished ceiling – which doesn’t seem like it will be finished because the AC duct has already been installed - the interior of the restaurant is on the classic side, with olive green, traditional panelled walls behind ruby buttoned couches. The setup of its tables is also pretty basic, but it actually has a cheerful view of a mini garden. If we were to compare it to another restaurant, Akli has the same spirit of everyone’s favourite, Bon Appetit.
Now let’s talk about the food. Our first flight was to Italy with Spicy Arancini Di Manzo (25LE). Starting from the spot-on creamy texture and the scrumptious golden brown crust, to the melted mozzarella cheese and minced beef, which was bursting with Italian herbs flavours, those four fried Italian rice balls were rather tasty.
Our second stop was at our beloved country with Sojouk (42LE). Lying on a bed of chopped parsley in true 90’s style, the grilled sausage was seasoned well, but it was a bit tough and dry. Overall, though, the appetiser seemed incomplete and needed some kind of a sauce or a dip with it.
Moving to the mains, we opted for the Greek Shrimp Saganaki (120LE). Made of perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp in tomato sauce and topped with feta cheese, the dish was a good one, but it wasn’t Saganaki. There was too little cheese to the flavour and the tomato sauce didn’t have any Greek flavours and tasted like Egyptian vegetable stew. One the other hand, the side of lemon rice added a good zesty flavour to the dish.
We also tried Adana Kebab (89LE) from the Turkish side of the menu. Two pieces of kofta laying on Lebanese bread and served with tahini dip and basmati rice topped with nuts, the dish didn’t capture anything particularly Turkish. Although the kofta was seasoned well and the rice was light and fluffy, the dish was overpriced – it’s almost exactly the same as Shawarmaister’s Kofta Halabi Platter which costs 45LE.
We finished our meal with the French Nougat Glace (27LE) for dessert; a rectangular slice of flawless vanilla ice cream filled with mini bits of pistachio and dried fruits. It was served with sour cherry syrup with a very sticky consistency, but the dessert as a whole was light and well executed.
There’s something about what Akli is trying to do that you can’t help but appreciate – but it’s not an easy job to perfect six different cuisines in one kitchen. The ambiance of the restaurant will take you back in time when you used to dine in a sporting club with the family and the food was, overall, good but there’s nothing remarkable about it.