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Maadi, Cairo, Egypt.
Sheikh El Arab Zahran: Affordable Seafood Take-Out in Cairo
Everybody loves a takeout restaurants in Cairo, especially an affordable one serving decent food. With some cuisines naturally being more expensive than others, seafood is a long standing staple of Egyptian cuisine, and one that people are willing spend good money on.
Seafood in Cairo is diverse, in that it can be eaten at a price point as low as a couple of pounds for a sandwich, all the way up to a lavish dinner at high-end restaurant. Most people, however, prefer a comfortable range in between, and if there's no sea-side view, they also prefer to eat it at the comfort of their own home.
With that said, Maadi greets a new player that meets that exact demand, Sheikh El Arab Zahran; a medium sized restaurant just next to the Total gas station on Autostrad.
Having just opened, we browsed through the menu for some filling options we'd imagine people at home would want to try. We landed on the casseroles.
We opted for a Seafood Pasta Casserole (44LE) and a Fish and Calamari Casserole (43LE) in addition to two rice options, Sayadeya Rice with Shrimp (26LE) and Sheikh El Arab Rice (12LE). While browsing for possible appetisers, we were intrigued by the Shrimp Spring Rolls (48LE) and Seafood Cannelloni (48LE).
When the food arrives you'll be amazed by the sheer amount. The Spring Rolls, bigger than any we had ever seen, came in a boxed paper plate. While definitely crunchy, the filling – which contained shrimp, calamari and bell peppers – were a little too greasy, making it much heavier than any appetiser should be. The Cannelloni, served in a clay pot containing shrimp and calamari generously soaked in cream, was quite tasty, but at this point in the meal we were already feeling almost full.
The Seafood Pasta Casserole, also served in a clay pot, contained spaghetti pasta with white sauce, a lot of shrimp, a few mussels and occasional calamari, all covered in a layer of cheese that had slightly hardened from the over. While extremely filling, it was rather unremarkable in taste; in fact, the distinction between the Cannelloni and the white sauce pasta was minimal.
The Fish and Calamari Casserole, made in red sauce with bells peppers, was interestingly different in flavour because of the missing cream element. While the calamari was generous, the fish was a little scarce.
The two rice platters we ordered were also more generous in size. Served in a round foil plate, the Sayadeya Rice had almost too much shrimp, though this may have been a blessing in disguise; the rice itself was devoid of any flavour. As for the Shiekh El Arab rice, it was the exact opposite, with no shrimp whatsoever and a really intense and spicy seasoning on the that's not for the faint of heart.
While the food could have fed another four people, we must comment on the freshness of the seafood. Across the table, all the shrimp and calamari tasted a little stale. One can forgive not being able to serve the freshest of seafood in any coast-less town, but you have to make up for it in either seasoning or cooking; seafood should never, ever, be chewy.
If you’re familiar with the Egyptian dining scene, you’ll know that sustainability is not really our strong point – quality is hit and miss, and sometimes even restaurants that have solid reputations and have been around for ages can disappoint. Case in point: if you’re a regular Gouna dinner, you may find yourself disappointed with what’s offered these days. However, we were pleasantly surprised – and relieved – to discover that the Smokery at El Gouna Yacht Club lives up to its billing.
Located towards the far end of Abu Tig Marina (on the opposite side of the new Marina to Mori Sushi, et al), the Smokery is situated right next to the marina’s lighthouse, so of course we chose to sit outdoors and admire the view despite the sweltering August heat. Craving something cold and salty, we completely bypassed their mise-en-bouche selection (35LE to 250LE) of cheese bites and fried seafood nibbles, and we went straight for their Salmon Fiesta; a selection of salmon bites including chunks of raw salmon steak, smoked salmon wraps and salmon sushi wrapped in seaweed. By the time we’d finished this generous dish and the tasty smoked fish dip they’d brought along with breadsticks, we all stared at each other in dismay. We were full. And we hadn’t even got to the main course yet.
Ignoring our stomachs and better judgement, we continued forth, and not ones to break with tradition, we ordered more salmon mains: the grilled salmon steak served with veggie nicoise and basil (around 140LE), the salmon carpaccio (85LE) and, for a change, the shrimp tempura. By this point, we were honestly frothing at the mouth from overeating, but you could hardly blame us: the salmon was so delicious and astoundingly fresh, we realised that all the other salmons we’d ever had now paled in comparison. If anything, we found that we could happily eat the Smokery salmon raw or smoked, with barely any garnish or side dishes necessarily.
Not ones to give up easily or wisely, we ordered the chocolate soufflé for dessert, which we spooned – groaning at the effort – into our tired mouths. Despite the suffocating heat, the hot chocolate was a welcome change to the salmon, although the portion could have been better. Yes, despite eating ourselves sick, the chocolate could have been bigger.
With impeccable, attentive service and a lovely outdoor setting, the Smokery makes for a quiet, classy dining destination in Gouna when you don’t want to have the DJ music and Friday night festival bands hammering into your ears. For four appetisers, two mains, one dessert and two glasses of wine, the bill totalled around 900LE; not exactly cheap but nonetheless a quality and refreshing dining experience in Gouna.