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Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.
Chef's Market: Unique & Creative Mediterranean Cuisine in Citystars
While restaurants in Cairo open in all corners of the city, there continues to be a concentration of creative, original eateries at the city's many shopping malls. One such example is Chef's Market, located in the new Mosaique Dining area of Heliopolis' Citystars.
The spacious venue is split into three stylish seating areas, with bare brick walls and contemporary-chic decorations overlooking an open kitchen area. One of the brains behind the operation is Wessam Masoud, who aside from being a notable chef, is also host of Kitchen 101 on CBC.
His experience in gastronomy is reflected in the menu; complex and varied, the dishes - and the general mis-en-scene - are inspired by the bustling food markets that are a cornerstone of cooking with our Mediterranean neighbours.
The menu is concise, firmly emphasising quality over quantity, and offers salads and appetisers, along with a selection of beef, poultry and seafood dishes. Fresh juices and hot drinks are also available, along with two types of desserts – as we highly recommend the freshly squeezed tangerine juice (21LE).
The herring, shrimp and roasted beetroot salad (48LE) was fresh, flavourful and overall delicious. Served in a deep bowl, the beetroot was diced along with cuts of cucumber on a bed of lettuce. The herring was plentiful, along with three fresh shrimp, drizzled with a light lemon dressing. Though it's rare to find dishes across Cairo's restaurants that use beetroot with anything other than feta cheese, the sweetness of the vegetable balanced the seafood elements perfectly, maintaining both the integrity of the herring and the shrimp.
From the beef section we opted for the tenderloin steak (96LE); perfectly cooked cuts of beef that really did have a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Wrapped in strips of beef bacon and sweet caramelised onions, a remarkably well-suited lemon dressing added a dash of acidity. Served on the side was a portion of spinach and chickpeas, along with a freshly baked potato and zesty pickled tomatoes.
At the recommendation of the waiter, we also enjoyed the unusual pairing of duck breast with fereek and red pepper relish (70LE). The cuts of duck were cooked perfectly – a rarity in Cairo – and the fereek was infused with aromatic spices that made a great canvas for the red pepper relish.
After our meal we were served a complimentary dessert of heavenly custard topped with konafa crumbs, cinnamon and raisins; this signature dessert has mustered quite a reputation, with patrons coming from all over Cairo to Citystars just to enjoy it.
The idea of dining at a mall conjures up images of noisy food-courts and the location doesn't exactly work in the restaurant's favour. But despite this, Chef's Market has exceeded all the expectations its ambitious team set forth on what has been a long, hard, but ultimately fruitful, road.
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.