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Zamalek, Cairo, Egypt.
Benissimo: New Italian Restaurant in Zamalek
It seems licenses to open up a restaurant are given out for free lately by the government. Everywhere you look, new restaurant and cafes are blooming, especially in Zamalek. One of the latest venues to open is Italian eatery Benissimo. Located by Kafficho and Hardee’s, this once quiet corner of Zamalek is rapidly gaining more and more popularity and foot traffic.
Benissimo’s interior is fairly plain; modern and slick, but lacking ambiance. The walls, tables and ceiling are all the same colour and the lamps are very bright giving a slightly uncomfortable feel to the place. The menu is just as boring as the décor.
There were only four starters to choose from; two soups and two salads. Because of this very limited choice we decided to skip the appetizers and instead focus on the pizza and pasta. While browsing the menu we received complimentary bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, olives and cheese. It turned out to be very good and we are sure this would be a popular item if it were added to the appetizers on the menu.
After the tasty bruschetta, expectations were high and when we received the food we couldn’t help but dig in. The blue cheese and walnut pasta (21LE) came without the walnuts, the blue cheese sauce was surprisingly tasty and not overpowering, but the pasta was undercooked and difficult to chew.
Despite this, it fared better than the steak with mushroom sauce (48LE). The meat was of very low quality and lacked the tenderness one looks for with steak; it was tough and riddle with fat and tendons. Even just cutting the meat proved to be difficult. The mushroom sauce was way too salty while the mashed potatoes on the side were plain and overall lacked in taste.
The chicken barbeque pizza (29LE) hit the spot without being spectacular. The barbeque sauce that topped the pizza overpowered the chicken but at least it wasn’t drowned in cheese, as is the case with a lot of pizza in Cairo.
To their credit, staff members were helpful, pleasant and prompt despite our gripes. As with all new restaurants, Benissimo shows promise, but the restaurant is in esteemed company in Zamalek and will need to improve drastically to compete.
Competition amongst restaurants in Cairo is nothing short of brutal. The rent of most of these venues alone can be a deal-breaker, so when a restaurant manages to keep a prime spot in an area like Road 9 in Maadi, they must be doing something right.
Mermaid has been a favourite of Maadi residents for years. The venue itself hasn’t changed a bit except for a make-shift outdoor area featuring a plastic white and blue tent with a couple of tables and chairs.
Inside, it’s the same American diner decoration you’ve known for years. It's till a little too stuffy, with the rigid wooden booths separating the tables and seating not leaving much room for sitting. A pleasant waiter greets you at the door and shows you to your table. He will hand you a menu and you probably won’t see him again.
No waiter came back, in the tiny restaurant, for fifteen minutes. One only showed up when we called out.
The menu hasn’t changed much over the years either, so we figured we would try some of the famous dishes and see if they were still up to par.
We opted for an order of Garlic Cheese Bread (17.40LE) from the appetisers and Veal Escalope (92LE) and Beef Stroganoff (108.5LE) from the mains. We also ordered drinks, but after receiving the wrong drinks three times, we gave up.
The Garlic Cheese Bread arrived very early on in the chaos and put a brighter note on proceedings; it was very strong in garlic flavour, which was complimented very nicely by the mozzarella cheese and a nice dash of oregano. The mains came about twenty minutes later. We ordered the Veal Escalope with a side of Pasta Bolognese and Sautéed Vegetables and the Veal Stroganoff with a side of Rice.
The Veal Escalope is slightly smaller than we remember it, but just as pleasing to the palate. It was cooked perfectly and seasoned well, though the pasta was average at best and was severely lacking salt, while the sautéed vegetables were essentially just boiled zucchini and carrots with no sort of seasoning whatsoever.
The Beef Stroganoff, which came in a generous portion drenched in deliciously and densely flavoured gravy, was the highlight of the night; like the veal, it was cooked and seasoned well, but once again, the small portion of Basmati Rice was plain in taste and was served in a meagre portion, not fitting of the beef.
Ultimately, while Mermaid still serves decent food, there's been a distinct drop in service and value-for-money since our last visit. Prices have practically doubled and, while one can appreciate external factors like costs, we don’t see anything being spent on the restaurant itself, which looks exactly the same as it did in 2007.