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Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.
Marco Polo: All Over the Place in Egypt
Named after the great merchant and traveller Marco Polo, the Meridien Heliopolis’ international restaurant promises a diverse and flavourful menu. A rich and cosy dining room and mouth-watering menu items suggest an evening of fine dining. Unfortunately for Marco Polo, it’s what’s on the plate that counts.
Excited by the table-side preparation, we decided to start with a Caesar salad (50LE) but were disappointed when our friendly waiter– not a member of the kitchen staff– wheeled a cart to our table. We felt bad for the man that was set up for failure: a jar of Dijon mustard, olive oil, factory-manufactured croutons, minced garlic and a single shredded anchovy simply cannot become the classic Caesar that we had ordered. Without egg or romaine (iceberg was substituted), it was just a salad; and an overdressed one at that.
Marco Polo’s beef carpaccio (60LE) was delicious, though. Thinly shaved, lean beef was drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction and accompanied by shaved Parmesan. The dish was light and balanced yet begged the question of why the shaved Parmesan hadn’t been incorporated with our pricey Caesar salad instead of the finely powdered variety.
We suggest that you stay away from soups at Marco Polo. Unable to decide between seafood soup and crab bisque (both 35LE); we left it up to the chef’s recommendation and were served a clear broth with greying salmon and overcooked scallops that tasted only of hot water.
The Cajun shrimp alfredo (70LE) should have had more flavour, yet with shrimp almost as white as the creamy sauce that it sat in, the dish lacked any discernable flavour beyond cooking cream. Beef tournedos with blue cheese over tomatoes and cucumber (100LE) was specified to arrive medium; but the meat arrived well-done on one side and bloody on the other. This wasn’t immediately obvious, though; as the large mound of cold mixed carrots, corn, courgette and mushrooms soaked up much of the blood. The meat was of good quality and had been seasoned well, leading us to believe that there is a breakdown of communication in the Marco Polo kitchen.
After voicing our grievances about the meat, we were offered dessert on the house, which at least speaks to the level of service at Marco Polo. Since the kitchen was out of marbled cheesecake, we opted for espresso crème brûlée dusted with pistachio and a praline crunch (40LE). The dessert arrived without the nuts, praline or espresso, and although only half of the sugar had been brûléed; the custard beneath the grains was rich and creamy.
It is clear that whoever had envisioned the menu at Marco Polo had some excellent ideas, yet the execution of the food leaves a lot to be desired.
Over the last year or so, new restaurants in Cairo have been introducing more and more exotic cuisines to the dining scene, be it Mongolian or even Peruvian with a Japanese twist, leaving classic favourites like Italian and Asian last week’s news. However, recently opened restaurant, Akli, has gone against the tide and specialises in not only one cuisine, but six, across everything from soups to desserts.
Located off Meccas Street in Dokki, Akli is divided into two zones; the ground floor, which has a exposed glass-wall baking room and shawerma station that wasn’t working at the time of our visit, is made for take-out orders, while the top floor is for dining-in. Besides the unfinished ceiling – which doesn’t seem like it will be finished because the AC duct has already been installed - the interior of the restaurant is on the classic side, with olive green, traditional panelled walls behind ruby buttoned couches. The setup of its tables is also pretty basic, but it actually has a cheerful view of a mini garden. If we were to compare it to another restaurant, Akli has the same spirit of everyone’s favourite, Bon Appetit.
Now let’s talk about the food. Our first flight was to Italy with Spicy Arancini Di Manzo (25LE). Starting from the spot-on creamy texture and the scrumptious golden brown crust, to the melted mozzarella cheese and minced beef, which was bursting with Italian herbs flavours, those four fried Italian rice balls were rather tasty.
Our second stop was at our beloved country with Sojouk (42LE). Lying on a bed of chopped parsley in true 90’s style, the grilled sausage was seasoned well, but it was a bit tough and dry. Overall, though, the appetiser seemed incomplete and needed some kind of a sauce or a dip with it.
Moving to the mains, we opted for the Greek Shrimp Saganaki (120LE). Made of perfectly cooked jumbo shrimp in tomato sauce and topped with feta cheese, the dish was a good one, but it wasn’t Saganaki. There was too little cheese to the flavour and the tomato sauce didn’t have any Greek flavours and tasted like Egyptian vegetable stew. One the other hand, the side of lemon rice added a good zesty flavour to the dish.
We also tried Adana Kebab (89LE) from the Turkish side of the menu. Two pieces of kofta laying on Lebanese bread and served with tahini dip and basmati rice topped with nuts, the dish didn’t capture anything particularly Turkish. Although the kofta was seasoned well and the rice was light and fluffy, the dish was overpriced – it’s almost exactly the same as Shawarmaister’s Kofta Halabi Platter which costs 45LE.
We finished our meal with the French Nougat Glace (27LE) for dessert; a rectangular slice of flawless vanilla ice cream filled with mini bits of pistachio and dried fruits. It was served with sour cherry syrup with a very sticky consistency, but the dessert as a whole was light and well executed.
There’s something about what Akli is trying to do that you can’t help but appreciate – but it’s not an easy job to perfect six different cuisines in one kitchen. The ambiance of the restaurant will take you back in time when you used to dine in a sporting club with the family and the food was, overall, good but there’s nothing remarkable about it.