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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.
Located on a narrow, hidden road in Sheraton, Heliopolis, Osteria might not be the easiest restaurant to find, especially if you’re not from the area. After getting lost and calling the restaurant for directions, we eventually found our way and were greeted warmly by the waiters who walked us to our seats and passed us our menus.
We found a wide range of options to choose from including salads (26LE-38LE) appetisers (16-53LE) steak (58LE-80LE) seafood (40LE-90LE) chicken (40LE-62LE) and fajitas (46LE-74LE). In true Egyptian chain restaurant style, all main courses are served with two sides of your choosing; sautéed vegetables, French fries or pasta.
We opted for Chicken Cordon Bleu with French fries and penne pasta with white sauce (47 LE) and Country Fried Shrimp, but were delivered the devastating news that the kitchen was out of shrimp and calamari. Instead, we chose a 220g beef fillet with mushroom sauce, sautéed vegetables and penne pasta with white sauce (58 LE). We also opted for an Osteria Appetiser Sampler (40LE) which was made up of four spicy chicken strips, mozzarella sticks, onion rings and Doritos covered in herbs and mozzarella cheese. The appetiser sampler comes with three different dips and was served hot and, remarkable, within five minutes of ordering it.
Equally as impressive, the main courses took around twenty-five minutes to emerge from the kitchen. Unfortunately, however, the Cordon Bleu was dry and a far cry from the moist chicken cutlet one would expect. In addition, there was a distinct, almost baffling, lack of cheese and the promised smoke beef. Being the positive Petes we are, we were able to at least enjoy the well made and seasoned fries. Already disappointed by the aforementioned shortage of shrimp and calamari, the meal’s saving grace came via the substitute dish of beef fillet. Well cooked and at the very reasonable price of 58LE, it was enjoyable without being spectacular - a slab of beef and no more.
Our check came out to 160 LE which is very reasonable for a dinner for two. The service was both great and quick and the waiters always had a smile on – shame about the execution of the food.