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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.
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day – and we’re not about to argue that – but unless you have the time before work or school to really make something off your first food-intake of the day, you end up going through the motions. Even if you choose to venture out, breakfast menus across Cairo are, more often than not, pretty basic – there’s no such problem with Ben & Florentine’s breakfast menu, though.
The Canadian chain had originally opened in New Cairo and, seemingly, its popularity has lead to the opening of a second branch on Maadi’s ever-changing Road 9.
As a venue, Ben & Florentine is small, housing only five tables overlooking the colourful, busy street. The menu brings together the type of items you would expect of ‘international cuisine’ – think sandwiches, burgers, pastas, pizzas etc. Visiting bright and early(ish), however, our focus was very much on breakfast – a breakfast we’d heard much about and covers almost 3 pages of the menu. The options are plentiful – ranging from simple eggs Benedict, to breakfast combos, to three-egg omelettes.
We kicked off what we were hoping would be a top-notch breakfast with a simple cappuccino (18LE), which was much more bitter than a cappuccino should be – it could have done with a bit more milk. But onto the main event of our breakfast, we ordered the Two Eggs Etc – a reasonably simple dish that comes with toast and beef bacon – the latter of which was, unfortunately, quite dry. What didn’t disappoint, though, was the portion of Ben & Florentine’s famous oven-baked fries, which were cooked perfectly to an outer crunch and an inner softness. Other than that, the eggs themselves were good, if unremarkable – they were cooked well and that’s all you can really ask for from eggs.
We also tried the Three Musketeers crepe (48LE), which pulls together beef sausages, cheddar and mozzarella – as well as more of those fries. This time, however, the fires were hard and dry – a disappointment if there ever was one, when you consider how good the ones with the eggs were. The crepe itself, meanwhile, was simple but delicious, with both the sausages and crepe cooked perfectly.
We sealed our breakfast with Ben & Florentine’s Raspberry Mojito (25LE) – the epitome of refreshing. Using lemonade and raspberry syrup, the real kick was in the fresh lemon and mint garnish, which – because of the basic other ingredients – added a subtle but noticeable dimension to the flavour.
Overall, we left the new branch of Ben & Florentine satisfied; though nothing wowed us, it delivered on its promise – a decent, wholesome breakfast.