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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.
If there’s one thing that the Cairo restaurant scene is good for, it’s the wide variety of options, suitable for just about every taste and wallet size. Known for its big menu and bigger portions, Spectra continues to be a popular franchise in the city, despite all odds. Their newest branch sits on Mohamed Mazhar Street in Zamalek; decidedly indistinct, this branch fashions the familiar cosy, chalet-style decor, homely artwork and low lighting.
As with each of its counterparts, the mammoth menus offer a vast variety of international appetisers (14.99LE-74.99LE), soups (6.99E-12.99LE), salads (13.99LE-39.99LE), combination platters (68.99LE-279LE), pastas (16.99LE-49.99LE), burgers (24.99LE-44.99LE), risottos (19.50LE-44.50LE) and sandwiches (14.99LE-39.99LE), along with chicken, veal, beef and seafood mains (39.99L-99.99LE). There’s also a separate menu dedicated to juices, cocktails, smoothies and hot drinks (4.99LE-16.99LE) as well as desserts (8.99LE-29.90LE).
For our starters, we opted to share a platter of mini burgers (29.99LE), before moving on to a tuna nicoise salad (26.99LE) and grilled chicken (39.99LE) with penne bolognaise on the side. For drinks, we chose one, surprisingly fruity and flavourful Spectra cocktail (16.99LE), as well as a cherry temple (8.99LE) - a chilled can of Sprite with a generous addition of sweet cherry syrup.
In a fairly short amount of time, our mini burgers arrived, generously portioned to share between two or three people. Encased in small, soft, sesame seeded buns, the patties were thick, juicy and delicious, with crisp pieces of lettuce held in place with cocktail sticks.
Next, our salad was delivered, and we were far from impressed. Despite being made with crunchy greens and vegetables, the potato-mayonnaise was hard and uncooked, whilst the dollop of oily, fishy tuna was little larger than the size of a teaspoon. After our complaint, the dish was returned with more of the same unpalatable tuna, whilst the potato salad was removed completely.
Adding salt to the wound, our grilled chicken was served swimming in an unrequested – and cold – mushroom sauce. Once again, we sent the dish back to the kitchen, and two plain, quality chicken breasts were hastily redelivered. Although not exceptional, our side of bolognaise was surprisingly pleasant, with the al dente penne pasta rolled in the beef and tomato sauce.
For dessert, we ordered a large slice of strawberry cheesecake (19.99LE) which transpired to be thick and creamy, with a tasty topping of sweet strawberry sauce and canned strawberries. Although the biscuit base was practically non-existent, it managed to satisfy our after-meal sweet cravings.
And so in true Spectra fashion, the meals are hit and miss, generously sized and moderately priced.