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Abbasiya, Cairo, Egypt.
Al Azhar Chinese Restaurant: Authentic Chinese Cuisine, Uyghur Style
True foodies are forever exasperated at the fact that most Chinese restaurants in Cairo serve a westernised version of the cuisine. Some Chinese students at Al Azhar University came to the same conclusion and opened up their own restaurant close to their dorms, where one can experience traditional Chinese food for great value.
The students are of Uyghur decent, a populace that is predominantly Muslim and therefore the food is ‘halal’ and pork-free. Al Azhar Chinese restaurant is very small and typifies its, ‘hole in the wall’ nickname. Finding it is quite difficult but if you follow our instructions you should be fine. Take Saleh Salem Road in the direction of Al Azhar Park leaving Heliopolis. Don’t take the flyover but stay underneath it. Halfway underneath the bridge and close to the tunnel, take a right. This street leads up to the Taki Mattress building. At the building, take a left into the street right across from it. Then, within two minutes, you will find the restaurant on your right hand side. It is identifiable by the Chinese characters on the signage.
Apart from not having an official name, it also lacks a toilet so make sure to go beforehand. The staff hardly speak English; they only speak a bit of traditional Arabic , as well as Chinese of course. The menu is made up of a Pharaonic photo album featuring pictures of the dishes; we have no idea about the actual names.
We opted for a random mix of the options, most of which were priced between 10LE and 20LE each, and ended up with beef, fish, chicken and tofu. In addition we also ordered several soups (also 10-20LE each). The soups were the biggest we’ve ever encountered in our lives and easily make for a meal on their own. The extremely spicy noodle soup with beef was particularly filling. The noodles were succulent and obviously homemade. The noodle soup is not for the fainthearted; it was super spicy and had us tearing up a bit. We also tried the beef broth which was very good although a bit on the salty side, resulting in a thirst that could only be cured by their delicious green tea.
The absolute best dish we tasted was the beef with garlic in a spicy tomato sauce. The meat was succulent and the flavours were fresh and well balanced. The fish was also prepared well and was covered with cumin – a popular herb in the Uyghur cuisine. The winning dish, however, was the tofu. It came prepared in a tomato based sauce and seduced even the strongest carnivore in our group.
In the end, we paid 249LE for a group of seven people. This price includes a few soft-drinks and tea. Overall, the restaurant is definitely worth a visit as it is quite the experience.
Many has waxed lyrical about Shakespeare and Co. in Dubai and when news broke that it was to open in Egypt, those same people waited with bated breath – such excitement at the prospect of a restaurant even had us wondering what all the fuss was.
As the first venue to open in Sheikh Zayed’s Capital Business Park, the restaurant boasts a spacey indoor area, offering smoking and non-smoking sections, and a large cluster of tables and chairs for outdoor seating, as well as a kids’ corner.
As for the décor, well your eyes won’t get bored anytime soon. Sporting a classic Victorian look with the modern lick here and there, the design is a feast for the eyes, with looks like an endless amount of lighting fixtures and chandeliers brightening up the many different furnishings – it’s a pleasing mishmash of materials, patterns, colours and shape, though the wood-panelled ceilings is particularly novel, featuring frames and paintings of old European royalty.
Now onto the meaty stuff – firstly, the service was spot on, though the restaurant, at the time of our visit, wasn’t exactly busy; only one other group was present. Not unlike the décor, Shakespeare and Co’s menu is busy and detailed, with a special Lebanese section on offer.
Of the many appetizers, we settled on crispy calamari (39LE), while for mains, we went for a classic Cordon Bleu (80LE) and a beef tenderloin steak (130LE).
After taking our order, our water arrived promptly with a big bread basket with four different types of bread, all of which were noticeably fresh, and delicious herb and garlic butter – a perfect opening to the meal.
Our appetiser, crispy calamari (39LE), arrived soon after with lemon segments and tartar sauce. The calamari itself was under-seasoned and slightly overcooked, giving a slight pull to the bite. But with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, a dash of lemon and dip into the tartar sauce, the different elements came together perfectly to make the dish the highlight of the meal.
The mains didn’t fare as well. Firstly, main dish portions are comparatively small. A beef tenderloin steak (130LE) was ordered it well done, but it came well, well, well done and had an overly charred flavour to it. The dish came with a side of potato gratin which was under-seasoned to the point of being flat in, and largely devoid of, flavour. Peculiarly, the dish also came with a garnish of wasabi – not wasabi garlic sauce, but just wasabi.
We were compelled to order the Cordon Bleu (80LE) after seeing it – and staring at it for a good ten minutes – on the Shakespeare and Co’s Facebook page. What we saw in that photo and what arrived at our table were to very different things, however. Firstly, what was meant to be a side of sautéed vegetables transpired to be one stick of broccoli, one stick of asparagus and a splattering of diced courgette – that was it. The dish also comes with a side of potato cubes and bacon bits that disappointed, too; the potato cubes lacked a desperately needed outer crunch and didn’t stand up to the flavour of the beef bacon. The main element of the dish, the chicken, was even more disappointing; the first cut into the chicken produced a river of oil and one slice of mushroom inside – no cheese as is customary – while the breaded exterior lacked crunch.
To wash it all down, we tried Shakespeare and Co’s pink lemonade (25LE) which is made at the restaurant by adding pomegranate juice and rose water – it was a resounding success, though a little heavy-handed with the rose water. For dessert, meanwhile, we went for a French classic – profiteroles (40LE). Served as three large pieces, each with ice cream sandwiched between each two halves and drizzled with chocolate sauce, tasted noticeably un-fresh, particularly the choux dough.
And so for all the hype and reputation that carried Shakespeare and Co to Cairo at the end of last year, a string of missteps throughout our meal left us disappointed and feeling that the extravagance of the décor and design was hollow.