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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.
Fast food restaurants in Cairo are aplenty, drawing in crowds of hungry customers. As a world-wide franchise, Chipstix have found success from offering various, fried fast food snacks; including their signature Chipstix skewers (10LE) – deep fried potato chips, spiralled and skewered on a stick.
In addition to their branch at Zamalek’s El Gezirah Club, one of their bright orange kiosks has recently joined the ranks at New Cairo’s Downtown Katameya Mall, offering shoppers carb-heavy goodies while they’re on the go. Set amidst the abundance of casual eateries, with no seating, takeaway is encouraged; eating while walking around a shopping mall struck as a little impractical, whilst sloppy packaging makes it difficult to carry home, should you wish to do so.
The member of staff serving us was unfortunately quite surly and unenthusiastic, taking his time to prepare our order. Notably, the staff were kitted out with disposable gloves, though neither the grills nor the deep fat fryers looked particularly clean.
According to their paper menus, the seeds for the potatoes used in their Chipstix skewers and fries are imported from Holland, negate the oil-absorption, therefore making them less greasy than usual potatoes after frying. Also on their menu is corn on the cob (12LE), fried chicken (14LE) or beef (11LE) corn dogs, and sweet options of baked chocolate (12LE) or waffle stix (11LE). Drinks are limited to sodas (3.50LE) and water (3LE).
The Chipstix skewers come in sixteen unusual savoury flavours, including seafood, Portuguese peri-peri and Worcester sauce. We opted for a more regular salt and pepper flavour (10LE), and watched as the staff liberally sprinkled the powder mix over our potato skewer. Fried with the skin left on, the potato was well-cooked to a golden brown with a strong salt and pepper taste. Promises aside – given the cooking method – a predictable amount of oil could still be tasted.
We also ordered a portion of crispy, thin-cut Chipstix fries (8LE) and delicious, fresh corn on the cob (12LE) doused in butter. Due to the unavailability of baked chocolate, we went for a waffle stix; prepared with a thick batter, the lashing of Nutella created a tasty, but unremarkable, sweet treat.
If you’re really hungry and need a quick, cheap snack, Chipstix offers an interesting, but unexceptional, twist on usual fried potato products.