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Downtown, Cairo, Egypt.
Alabaster Bar: Sushi-Mania at the Fairmont
Tucked away in a corner at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel is the superfluously named Alabaster Bar. True to its name, the bar is sleek, shiny and white, but with a good dose of atmospherically dim lighting.
There are only five seating sections in Alabaster Bar; two high tables for bigger groups, two smaller couches that curve around circular tables, and a small bar area in front of the chef. The Fairmont’s staff advises that you call ahead of a visit, but you’ll almost never turn up to be turned away. With a selection of dining venues within the hotel, Alabaster Bar isn’t regularly frequented; even with the extravagantly named all-you can-eat ‘Sushi Mania’ evenings.
At 150LE per person, the setup is perfect for newcomers to sushi. Not only that; but it also works in favour of lazy people who just want to eat, forgetful people who aren’t good with Japanese culinary linguistics, and indecisive people who can never decide what to order. If he has the chance to, the chef himself will come to your table and dabble in a bit of small talk with you, before recommending particular dishes based on your level of experience with sushi, your general preferences and the freshness of his ingredients. The best approach is to ask the chef for a selection, upon which random assortments of sushi will be delivered to your table as often as you like. Each assortment is served on one large dish, ready to be dragged to your own plate.
This is not the place to come to if you’re looking for a truly authentic sushi experience. The majority of menu is dominated by Western-style sushi; i.e. California rolls, spider rolls, Alaska rolls, and so on and so forth. The chef does have some skill in nigiri sushi (the popular combo of pressed rice with a topping); but only true connoisseurs will appreciate the difference.
The quality of the food is invariably decent, but no more than that. The rice is cooked perfectly, but the fish and vegetables feel slightly warmer than they should, and so taste a little less fresh than expected. On the plus side, the ginger, wasabi and soy sauce are all served generously and on demand in small, easy-to-use bowls.
With this of course being the Fairmont Nile City, drinks are expensive and naturally not included in the all-you-can-eat price. So if the soya sauce isn’t enough to quench your thirst, expect to pay heavily. Like all the dining outlets at the Fairmont, the Alabaster Bar boasts imported wines and spirits; which goes some way to substantiating the high prices. Beers are basic in choice, and sell for between 35LE and 45LE, while a glass of wine can set you back at 75LE at the lower end of the selection, and upwards to 160LE. There are no bartenders as such, or even an actual bar for that matter; just a small stand where drinks are mixed. Because of this, the cocktail menu is exactly what you’d expect, with no surprises, but even the simplest concoction will still cost you at least 140LE.
The problem with the all-you can-eat setup is that it relies on a high turnover of customers; so any restaurant will of course want you up and out as soon as possible. This doesn’t make for a particularly comfortable time, and so this is more suited for a quick, on-the-go meal. Sushi at Alabaster Bar is cheap but not necessarily cheerful.
When Zamalek institution, La Bodega, closed down at the beginning of 2014, it left a hole in many a heart. While a beachside iteration has since popped up on the North Coast during Sahel Season, its closure has certainly left a gap that not even its replacement, the phenomenal U Bistro, has been able to quite replace in the same way.
But remnants still remain in the form of sister venue, Aperitivo, located on the same floor of the same building. It’s by no means similar in appearance or, one could argue, atmosphere, but La Bodega regulars have adopted it as a replacement and the spirit is very much cut from the same cloth. For those not familiar with Aperitivo, the bar and restaurant maintains a classic element in its décor and design (think wood and glass cabinets displaying various piece of crockery and ornaments) while also using various more modern pieces (the chandeliers are very cool).
Divided into two sections – the bar and the restaurant proper – there isn’t a lot that will jump out at you in its appearance; but that’s the best way to be for a venue of this standing – demure and unpretentious.
There’s been something of a revolution happening at Aperitivo as of late, including the launch of a new menu; one that walks the line between high-end culinary delicacy and the kind of wholesomeness you get with bistro food.
The concise but varied menu covers soups, salads, meat and poultry dishes, as well as pastas and seafood, which is where we began our evening.
We rarely give up the opportunity to try a dish with scallops in it – not only because it’s a rare commodity in Cairo, but because it’s also often mishandled, which felt like the case with Aperitivo’s seared scallop starter (155LE). While it was a creative and enticing dish, the scallops were slightly overcooked, the accompanying black truffle was too little, though the spiced apple puree that also accompanies the dish gave a pleasant sweetness to every bite despite tasting more like a beetroot puree. Meanwhile, four sticks of asparagus were cooked and seasoned perfectly, while a faint balsamic reduction did little to elevate the rest of the ingredients.
Among the menu’s salads, we were seduced by the camembert salad, which brought together generous chunks of deep-fried camembert cheese together with mixed greens, roasted pears, sundried tomatoes and walnuts. The greens were fresh, the sundried tomatoes added a sweet acidity to thick, pungent cheese and the walnuts gave the whole dish an earthy touch. However, the pears were undetectable, which is a real shame as it could have been the ingredient that brought everything together.
While various mains are included in the new menu, we decided to test the kitchen’s mettle with meats. Despite being served with far too much uncooked fat, a medium-cooked sirloin steak (150LE) was full of flavour and served in a very big portion, alongside some perfectly made oven baked vegetables. Our second dish, the roast veal fillet, was also of a noticeably good quality and served in a large portion, though it was unevenly cooked, meaning some pieces were a little tough and others had a perfect pink interior.
Unfortunately, there was not much else to talk about with the mains, despite the menu promising more; the veal dish, for example, should come with roast pumpkin ad soft polenta, but both were missing from the plate, as was the roasted garlic on the steak dish.
This, actually, defined our meal; what we were served was well-made, but with so much missing from both mains – as well as the missing pear from the salad – severely dwindling what promised to be a fine evening of fine dining. Would we go again? Absolutely – the new menu reads fantastically; but maybe the kitchen needs a little more time to perfect it.