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Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.
Johnny Carino's: Eclectic Fetar Buffet in Heliopolis
Restaurants in Cairo indulge in a lot of traditions during the month of Ramadan; however, nothing can beat the specially prepared buffets which seem to have become part of the city's festive customs. Known for their international dishes, Johnny Carino's serves up an open buffet fetar (129.99LE), full of their favourite variations. Their Heliopolis branch sports a large, unappealing roadside patio which, luckily had been decorated with streams of jolly flags, lanterns and bright khayameya patterns. Unfortunately, all of the indoor seating was booked up so we had to sit outside; luckily, the traffic wasn't too much of a problem at fetar time.
Included in the meal price were two small juice offerings; karkade that was a little too bitter, and amar el din was that almost too sweet. The buffet wasn't the largest we'd seen, nor was it the smallest, winding around the outside of the building, along with the queue.
Beginning with soup, between the chicken and tomato options, we found the chicken soup to be pleasantly creamy with a generous amount of tender vegetable pieces; celery made for a refreshing addition. The tomato didn't fare as well and tasted less authentic than we'd expected.
The salad bar consisted of several creamy dips, watery but fresh greens and creamy potato salads. Next, we found the selection of mains to be unusually varied; from pizza and pasta to Egyptian dishes including fatta and sambousak. Sadly, by the time we came to eat, several of the dishes had cooled due to the breezy weather.
Our large slice of pizza was adorned with small pieces of tasty, crunchy, sweet pepper but would have benefitted from more cheese and tomato on its fluffy base. We likened their spaghetti option to bolognaise, minus any flavourful tomato sauce, with chunks of beef steak rather than mince meat. The macaroni cheese was slightly stodgy, but cheesy and delectable nonetheless. Out of two chicken options, the chicken fillets in a bland white sauce, complete with pieces of beef bacon was an interesting dish, whilst the breaded chicken pieces were well-made but heavily peppered. There was also a breaded calamari option, which turned out to be one of our favourites.
The more conventional dishes included an incredibly fatty lamb fatta, sitting on a pile of stodgy white rice and a small amount of soggy bread pieces. The mombar was dry and unappetising, whilst the meat sambousak, in comparison, were better, but by no means extraordinary.
The dessert table was arranged to the back of the main course buffet, to allow people easy access. The setup of Oriental sweets was mouth-watering and everything tasted as good as it looked; the konafa was smooth and velvety, the basbousa was soaked in syrup and the Om Ali was as sweet and milky as ever. Fresh fruit was also on offer; we highly recommend the fresh, juicy watermelon, as well as the perfectly ripe bananas.
Although it offers a selection of different foods, Johnny Carino's buffet seems to be more about quantity than quality. However, said buffet is very reasonably priced, especially given the large selection of delectable desserts.
Even though we have an endless amount of Italian restaurants in Cairo, we can all agree that only a few are able to do it justice – to make it truly authentic. Not only does Tavolino achieve this, but it goes a step further.
From the outside, the Zamalek restaurant, which is located off of Aboul Feda Streey, might seem very small, but it’s surprisingly spacious. Interior wise, it has a very simple yet chic appearance; white brick walls with a touch of wood, black and white frames, and triangular mirrors stand out, despite the almost overly yellow lighting.
Moving to food, we started our meal with Cannelloni (70LE) from the restaurant’s ‘New Italian Cuisine’ menu, which adds twists to Italian classics. Six pieces of perfectly cooked cannelloni are stuffed with chicken and spinach, covered with melted mozzarella cheese and then topped with marinated tomato – similar to marinara sauce – and pesto sauce. A side of creamy gorgonzola sauce added a nutty flavour with a fantastic deep aftertaste and the dish showed Tavolino to be masters of art of flavour matching.
Another item we tried from the ‘New Italian Cuisine’ menu was The Tenderloin in the Wood (235LE); a perfect medium-well tenderloin steak laying on a phyllo-like pastry that’s filled with sautéed mushrooms, spinach and onions, and served with sweet garlic sauce and an exquisite sweet and savoury blueberry-and-onion jam. This dish left us speechless; not only was the steak on its own bursting with Italian herb flavours, but the addition of the crunchy texture from the mushroom pocket with the unique sweetness of the jam merged with the sweet garlic sauce created an outstanding dish.
Deciding to go back to the basics with our last choice, we went with Risotto Alla Pescatora (120LE). Rich, creamy, and well-seasoned, it had spot-on al dente texture; mixed with well-cooked shrimps and mussels, the dish was close to perfect, but for the overcooked, mushy crab and rubbery calamari.
Another thing that kept Tavolino from getting a perfect score was the fact that, at the time of our visit, only the Ice Cream & Sorbet (50LE), which is 3 scoops of Movenpick ice cream, was available.
But that was just a side note to a great meal; we were surprised by Tavolino’s one-of-a-kind flavours, particularly those on the ‘New Italian Cuisine’ menu, which certainly helps separate it from the crowd with a unique identity. Tavolino isn’t just another Italian restaurant.