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Bella: Cairo’s Corporate-Cosy Brunch
Lunching at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza’s resident Italian restaurant Bella almost feels like dining in New York's posh Upper East Side. The hotel restaurant emanates a feeling of crisp business luxury, with grand dining chairs, banquet decor and glass table tops. This is the sort of restaurant where a bottle of Aquafina water is whisked to your table in a silver ice-bucket, like any distinguished bottle of white wine.
While hotel dining generally threatens to border on sterile, Bella is just charming enough to provide a refreshing lunch spot. The stunning Nile view gives the illusion that Cairo is nothing but scenic and serene, with a gently flowing river snaking through. The service is impeccable, though we were not partial to the Four Seasons uniform, which is reminiscent of 1950s stewardess attire without that vintage edge.
Bella offers a business lunch set menu for 175LE, which includes an antipasti, a main course and dessert. With added drinks and service charges, expect the set price to increase somewhat.
Starters include roasted eggplant and buffalo mozzarella served warm on a bed of baby greens. The Four Season's notoriously fresh ingredients, reportedly imported from select international markets, make for captivating flavours in even the simplest of dishes. The lightly cured mozzarella contrasts divinely with the tart greens and tangy sundried tomatoes. The bruschetta of fresh tomatoes is light but full of flavour, while the salads have varied greens of arugula, endives and spring lettuce, light olive oil dressing and garnishes of toasted pine nuts. The beef carpaccio is served in slices that are more substantial than usual, and the salt of the meat is balanced with a balsamic dressing.
Main courses offer a range of gnocchi, pastas, risottos and fillets. The heavenly honey-and-black-pepper-crusted salmon is cooked to perfection, with a brazed crisp exterior encasing the tender texture of the fish. The dish was accompanied by an impressive potato mille-feuille layered with tomatoes and eggplant. The New York steak was cooked to our medium-rare specifications, and marinated in rich sauce with a tasty side salad.
The coffee at Bella is excellent; the well-brewed espressos and cappuccinos prompted sighs of satisfaction around our table. With dessert, we encountered our first worry: the quartet of crème brûlée tasted oddly artificial; with a selection of vanilla, coffee, berry and pistachio crème brûlées, a few even sadly lacked the crisp brûlée surface, and instead were sub-par mousses. Our tastebuds were rescued by the chocolate molten cake, which was a dark chocolate enthusiast’s delight, while the panna cotta with berry ice cream hit the spot.
Bella brings lunch in Cairo to new heights by combining gourmet dining with casual dishes in a way that gives lunch among friends just the right among of sophistication without being stuffy.
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.