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Garden City, Cairo, Egypt.
8 Restaurant: Authentic Asian Cuisine Meets Fine-Dining at Four Seasons Nile Plaza
News flash: everything you've ever thought you've known about Chinese cuisine is false. It's become common knowledge that Chinese staples such as chop suey and even fortune cookies are products of Western appropriation, but authentic Chinese cuisine is even further away from what we know.
This is no more apparent in Egypt than at Four Seasons Nile Plaza's 8 Restaurant – a sophisticated eatery that largely stands untroubled in its position as the best high-end Chinese restaurant in Cairo.
While it has the five-star hotel finish that you expect, there's also a certain element of lived-in nonchalance, best exhibited by various ornamental touches that stand apart from the sleeker aesthetic it also boasts. The staff – who are mostly of Asian descent – also add to this balance, in that they're almost clinically attentive and prompt, but warm and welcoming all the same.
There's also a certain balance to the menu, which covers all tastes – meat, chicken, seafood, vegetarian, fried, fresh and much more – across an eclectic selection of dishes.
Inspired by 8's weekly Friday dim sum buffet, we chose to start with what turned out to be possibly the best example of the Chinese dumpling in the city. The steamed shrimp dumpling (115LE/3 pieces) was delicious, though lacked any noticeable traces of bamboo shoots as stated in the menu, while the shrimp and fried goose liver dim sum (95LE/ 3 pieces, was cooked to perfection – and by that we mean without dripping with oil – with the goose liver and shrimp working out as a surprisingly good combo, particularly the former which was smooth and of noticeably good quality.
The mains, however, is when you realise how skewed mainstream Chinese cuisine has become; everything at 8 is incredibly fresh and light – two things you don't usually associate with this type of food. Seasoning and other herb-usage is restrained, leaving the food do speak for itself. The Slowly Roasted Scallop dish (365LE) is the perfect example of this; served in a chilli butter sauce, the scallop pieces were a little tougher than one would hope, but the simplicity of the dish is genius and the accompanying stewed vegetables made for an even simpler but sensible side.
A second scallop dish, this time with sautéed beef (360LE), showed the slightly more complex side of things at 8's kitchen. With the scallops being sautéed rather than roasted, the consistency was much better, while its combination with the beef and its juices was perfect. The only disappointment was that the satay sauce mentioned in the menu was pretty indiscernible. We gobbled down our delicate dishes with another seemingly familiar dish – wok fried egg noodles (92LE). Unlike the jumble of a dish we are used to calling noodles, 8's version doesn't throw a load of stuff into the wok – all the elements work for a certain reason; the noodles themselves have a slight dryness that leaves the vegetables and mushrooms to add a textural touch and a depth in flavour.
And this seems like the key to 8's success – although the dishes seem simple (the menu affords each item nothing more than a few words as descriptions) each ingredient is treated with the utmost respect and serves a purpose within its dish. Typical hotel prices aside, 8 offers a unique culinary experience that no Asian restaurant can quite measure up to in Cairo.
The floor is run mostly, but not exclusively, by well-turned out Asian staff who provide levels of service unbeknown to this city. Gracious, polite, prompt and always smiling, it really does make a difference to the dining experience.
One of the more peculiar items on the menu is the jellyfish. At 92LE, it’s by no means cheap, but it is interesting. The slices are usually dried for storage, before being rehydrated and served chilled with a soy sauce-based dressing that includes sesame oil and chilli sauce. It’s certainly an acquired taste and is more about texture than flavour. The long strips feel exactly as you’d imagine minus a follow-up gag reflex.
An order of steamed scallop dumplings (73LE) arrived as steamed shrimp dumplings, but was pleasing nonetheless. The shrimp itself was perfectly cooked if a little bland on the pallet. That wasn’t the case for the crispy lobster entrée (262LE). Prepared in a light, garlic salt tempura batter, the godly bite-size pieces of lobster meat were nothing short of outstanding; light and crispy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside. They also lend themselves pretty well to the selection of dressings served as standard by the restaurant; diced red chilli, ginger and vinegar, chilli oil with peppers, soy sauce and sweet and sour sauce.
Elsewhere in the edible-animal kingdom, the wok-fried beef fillet (136LE) comes with a portion of vegetables doused in XO sauce; a popular fish-based condiment from Hong Kong that brings together dried scallop and shrimp, dried chilli and canola oil. In truth, the taste of 8’s XO sauce is far from being as flavourful and downright weird as the ingredients suggest, but it lets the strips of fillet do the talking for the dish. Though tender and plentiful, the beef may need a bit more seasoning for palates more accustomed to western cuisines.
This wasn’t so much of a problem with the wok-fried chicken with honey pepper sauce (112LE). That perfect balance of sweetness from the honey and zing from the pepper brought the flavour of the chicken pieces to a new level – a perfect coating for poultry. No Asian meal would be complete without carbohydrates and 8’s vegetable noodles (60LE) fair well, although the complexities of the meat dishes are better suited to a bowl of plain steamed rice.