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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.
Some restaurants in Cairo have developed a following of families who dine at the establishment every Friday – like a family ritual of sorts. The thing with these restaurants is, since the people keep coming back, it leaves room for the quality of food to fall.
One such case is Chili’s in Maadi; seemingly a pioneer in overcooked steaks. You’ll find it packed with families every Friday, despite its location in the terrible Bandar mall, and it has somehow managed to survive the economic crash and the uproar in Egypt, all while serving subpar food.
The venue itself has the usual cluttered Tex-Mex diner feel, with an additional outdoor area that’s far too hot in the summer. Seating will take you quite a while if it’s the weekend, and you can also expect long serving times.
Much to our dismay, we sat down after waiting for fifteen minutes. We dived straight into the menu to shorten our waiting time. From the appetisers we opted for a Fajitas Trio (82.99LE).
Arriving on a sizzling hot plate with onions and bell peppers, the dish contained beef, chicken and shrimp, accompanied with small tortilla wraps, sour cream and pico de gallo. Fresh off the bat, the chicken and the beef were so over cooked you couldn’t bite through them; the shrimp, on the other hand, tasted like it had been defrosted and, similarly, hard to chew.
From the main courses, we opted for a Southwest Ribeye (114.99LE) and Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken (52.99LE). Served with mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon bits, as well as sautéed vegetables, the Southwest Ribeye is said to have southwest seasoning and topped with seasoned butter. The steak was ordered medium rare, but what we got was a good two stages past well-done. So well-done, in fact, that you could taste neither the seasoning nor the butter; just charred, terrible tasting meat.
The chicken, however, was much better. Served with French fries and the honey chipotle sauce, it too was overcooked, though in a roundabout way, it worked to the dishes favour. The chicken had pleasing crisp to it, albeit a little too chewy, and the sauce was very tasty.
To top off a sad experience, we hoped a dessert could salvage the situation. We were wrong.
We ordered the Brownie Sundae hoping to get to some cold vanilla ice cream melting over chocolaty goodness. Instead, we got a stale, barely warm brownie. The vanilla ice cream wasn’t bad though; don’t be alarmed by its yellow colour though; that’s just the egg whites in the French vanilla recipe.
One can understand the appeal of Chili’s; a big menu of unfussy, filling food. But how it continues to enjoy such a level of popularity, unaffected by the country’s economic woes, is a mystery.