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Mohandiseen, Cairo, Egypt.
Essence Barbecue and Mughal Cuisine: Near-Perfect Pakistani
The recently opened Essence Barbecue and Mughal Cuisine in Mohandiseen promises ‘delicious and mouth-watering Mughal cuisine’ prepared by the female executive chef and co-owner. What sets Essence apart from other restaurants in Cairo is that its promise of good food is backed up by a concise menu, courteous service and stunning interior decor.
The restaurant’s colour scheme is one of muted reds, accented with deep-coloured wooden chairs and wooden panelling adorning the length of one wall. The table setting is very elegant with well-polished cutlery; but it’s taken one step too far with the thoughtful but unnecessary addition of a fresh rose on each table, alongside a shot glass with a floating candle decorated with rose petals.
We started out by ordering the vegetable samosas (13LE), which arrived right on time, having been given sufficient time to rest from the heat of the deep fryer; but not so much that they had gone cold. This helped us enjoy the subtle heat of the spices as opposed to the raw heat of the cooker. The vegetable pakoras (15LE) were veritable pillows of light and airy deep-fried goodness, but not oily in the least. Both appetisers came with a bowl of mint-yoghurt dip to balance out the mild spices.
The restaurant was empty save for our own table; so the service was absolutely spot-on, and the main courses arrived just as our stomachs began signalling. Sadly, the rogan josh (68LE) was not available and, upon the strong recommendation of the head waiter, we ordered the smoked yogurt lamb (65LE) instead.
Arriving in domed copper pots, the chicken karai (54LE) was a quarter of chicken, bone-in, robustly spiced with (among other things) chilli, tomatoes, lemons and cardamom. The flavours were very satisfying, but the inclusion of the bones was unfortunate, since it forced this reviewer to get his fingers sticky. Finger licking may be good for fast food, but here it was an embarrassing oversight. The daal tarkewali (29LE) is made of lentils cooked with onions, tomatoes and a cornucopia of spices, but lacked the punch and full flavour of the chicken tarkewali.
Our taste buds thanked us profusely for the smoked yoghurt lamb, comprised of a dish of very tender smoked and barbecued lamb resting in a spiced yogurt sauce. The delicate flavour of the charcoal smokiness combined with a muted lamb flavour mingled very well with the tart spiciness of the yogurt. It was easily the best dish of the evening.
It has been said before; but no meal is complete without a dessert. With full bellies, we ordered the gulab jamun (20LE). Normally, this dessert is a sickly sweet confection at other restaurants; but at Essence it was made with even-handedness and grace. A brace of spiced coconut spheres settled in a shallow pool of cardamom-spiced syrup delivering spice and sweet in equal measures, culminating in a very satisfying end to an enchanting meal.
There’s a certain charm to this restaurant that it carried through from its old venue in Degla. Little Swiss and the charming owner Charlotte have been the centre of Swiss Cuisine in Egypt. Having not seen the new venue that they moved to about a year ago, we decided to pass by for cheesy goodness.
Located on Road 18 just past Spectra and Roastery, Little Swiss has taken up a decently sized apartment on the first floor of a residential building. You walk into a courtyard and up a flight of stairs into a very cozy, wooden-cabin-in-the-mountains type of interior, with the charming black and white cow print being the centerpiece of the décor. While the red candles provide dim romantic lighting, the music is unfortunately protruding and works against everything else that sets the mood.
As always, Charlotte will stop by your table to greet you and check if you’re familiar with Swiss cuisine. We already knew what we wanted, so the friendly waiter, dressed in red to match everything else, took our order.
From the appetizers, we opted for Fillet Pfannli (35LE), a small plate with bite sized chunks of fillet baked in the oven. With a strong salty flavour, and very tender consistency, the Pfannli was both delicious and inviting of more yummy food.
Next was the Mushroom Cheese Fondue (145LE), which your waiter will ask you if you want with or without white wine. Traditionally, fondue is made with wine and gives it a bit of a kick in terms of flavour, but it’s still delicious should you choose to opt out. Little Swiss has always been secretive about what exactly goes into the fondue, our taste buds might be wrong, but we could taste Emmental and Gruyère. Served with a bowl of bread bits that you hook onto the end of a long fork and dip, there’s little in life a pot of melted cheese can’t fix. Should you have one such issue, the next entrees will clear them right up.
The Beef Fillet Table Grill (130LE) consists of raw slices of beef fillet which you can place on a hotplate that’s plugged into a nearby outlet. The meat is served with homemade sauces and some herbs you can marinate it with. While this ordeal can seem a little inconvenient, cooking the meat takes very little time and leaves with you with hot, tender and delicious pieces of meat.
Still not full? That calls for some Chocolate Fondue (75LE). Available in dark or milk chocolate, the Toblerone bars are melted in a small pot and served with marshmallows, cake, apples, grapes, pineapples and bananas for your dipping pleasure.
While the food is certainly delicious at Little Swiss, everything is a little on the expensive side, which makes it a very difficult for this otherwise great restaurant to become a regular dining spot. Otherwise, it’s a great place to take a date or to spoil yourself every now and then.