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Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt.
Ontop: Uninspiring Nile View Dining in Cairo
Summer is all but upon Cairo, and that means you can finally start to enjoy the luxury of outdoor Nile dining without worrying about your hair being ruffled by the wind. Cairo 360 is no stranger to restaurants aboard the Le Pacha 1901 boat; Le Steak, L’Asiatique, Il Piccolo Mondo, and Johnny’s have graced the pages here, and now the creatively named top deck restaurant Ontop will cease to be conspicuous by its absence.
To put this visit in context, there was a large private party of cigar-smoking fat cats and overly done-up housewives. From minute one, the staff was panicked, hurried, and a little bit overwhelmed. This of course affected the few other guests in attendance. It’s as unacceptable as it is understandable.
The menu is pretty confusing. While the appetisers range across international cuisine, the mains are predominantly Japanese. There’s something peculiar about the pricing too. Appetisers start at 50LE, and reach up to 99LE, while main courses start at 79LE, with the most expensive dish at 185LE. So theoretically, your appetiser may potentially cost more than your main. This could, however, be attributed to the fact that Ontop is setup more to be a bar than a restaurant.
The sense of chaos continued, as both truffles and the Japanese chef were unavailable. The absence of the latter meant a calamari salad would have to be prepared in a different way. So, an order of fresh calamari with a garlic and lemon marinade (45LE) was pleasant enough, while the tomatoes in a caprese salad (60LE) were disappointingly green and a little sour.
Havoc continued as the mains were brought out long before the appetisers were finished. The veal teppanyaki was overcooked and a little tough but was saved by the delicious stir-fry vegetables covered in soy sauce. Similarly, the teriyaki chicken was both dry and much sweeter than anticipated.
You can always rely on a dessert to save the day, and the crème brûlée and chocolate fondant are reasonably priced at 30LE and 28LE respectively. Needless to say, both desserts disappeared pretty soon after they’d arrived. The crème brûlée was perfectly creamy and perfectly crispy on top; and the light vanilla ice cream was perfect with the thick rich centre of the chocolate fondant.
Beverages are plentiful, with beers costing between 17.50LE and 25LE, alcoholic cocktails all at 47LE, and non-alcoholic cocktails at 20LE. The wine selection is dominated by Gianaclis, and a glass will set you back at between 30LE and 60LE.
So, like its Le Pacha brethren, Ontop fails to capture the essence of its surroundings and infuse it in the quality of food and service. Even the celestial desserts aren’t enough to keep you from feeling a little cheated as you step back onto dry land.
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.