I thought it was five years since the opening of Cairo Kitchen, or rather the first Cairo Kitchen store, just off 26th of July Street in Zamalek.
“It was. It was just a few weeks after the 25 January 2011 Revolution. We came here to eat koushari and you said it is not the typical street koushari but rather more of a homemade version of the dish,” Dalia said.
Maha, who was with us on the same day, recalled that when we were stepping in Cairo Kitchen for the first time, around mid-April in 2011, a few days after its inauguration, we did not know what to expect and that "the food was good.”
“We changed the menu a little after the change of management and we added a few items, grills mainly, but we promise you the food is still good,” said the waiter as we were bringing ourselves to the same little table in the very small garden annexed to the extremely small restaurant.
Waiting for three other friends we decided to bring a couple tables together and to order almost everything on the menu.
Nadine and Magued, who were observing Lent, ordered koushari in its regular version and the brown rice/brown pasta version, mashi (stuff vegetables), after the waiter asserted it was still cooked with oil and was minced-meat free, grilled vegetables and an assortment of salads from the bar.
Then we ordered the Cairo Kitchen typical roasted chicken, molokheya (spinach soup) with chicken, white rice, chicken yogurt fattah (a rice based dish), zucchini and potato stuffed with meat, white rice with vermicelli, rokak (savory pastry) and chicken liver.
The waiter, with a very big smile, suggested that we couldn’t miss le plat du jour: vermicelli with meatballs and white sauce, “just as well, and you will take all leftovers in boxes."
We were offered us complementary lemon mint, perhaps for having remembered that it was the fifth anniversary of the store.
Magued made his regular observation that comes up everytime we are dining in Zamalek: this neighbourhood is turning into a large food court. “Every little corner, every terrace or pavement is evolving into a café, restaurant, bar or patisserie.”
“And what you see is not always what you get, because sometimes the setting is very nice but the food and drinks are really below average,” Maha noted.
“Especially with bars,” Magued argued.
“It is becoming very difficult to have a civilised bar in this city. I mean, if we are not talking five star hotels. Apparently all bars are turning into a dimly lit narrow space where alcohol is served almost apologetically and where clients deal with the place as if it was a pick-up spot,” he said.
Tarek disagreed. “You are just comparing the bars of today to the way things used to be in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” he said. However, he added that because drinking and assumed religious piousness do not match very well, most bars tend now to be “in some dark cellar of one building or another."
He recalled a novel that he had just finished: The Barman by best selling novelist Achraf Achmawie.
Tarek said that the novel is essentially about the clients of a bar in the cellar of an old apartment building in Zamalek, with the leading character there, Stevie, the barman, a Copt-turned-Muslim who actually does not drink while watching the misery of his customers indulge in excessive alcohol consumption.
When the food was about to be served the waiter decided to annex an extra table to make sure that the plates were delightfully placed.
Nadine and Magued said the koushari lived up to the expectations of early visits to Cairo Kitchen and the salads were fresh but that the mashi was a bit too salty.
“Too salty” seemed to be the most common remark that we all made, with the exception perhaps of the roasted chicken.
We ordered cold drinks to go with the food that was otherwise quite delicious. “Exactly like homecooked food. This is the strength of this place,” Dalia noted.
Nadine, who had also read Achmawi’s The Barman, noted that the most interesting character in the novel was not Stevie but his daughter, Mariam, who did not convert along with her father who changed faith to marry an obnoxious Muslim woman.
“I really liked the text of how she had to hide her faith in her house and how she had to suffer for having fallen in love with a Muslim man who was not aware she was Christian. She went mad at the end,” Nadine said.
Both Tarek and Nadine agreed that the book had a strong resemblance to Alaa Al-Awani’s The Yacoubian Building, in the sense that it tries to dissect social ailments through the lens of a group of people who frequent the same place.
“But it did not sell half as much as Yacoubian, of course,” Tarek noted.
As the waiter came to take the many leftovers to parcel into boxes, we did venture ordering a dessert to share: date rice pudding and mouhalabiya with orange and cardamom.
“Why would an Egyptian cuisine restaurant serve cream caramel? Strange,” Dalia noted as she looked at the menu.
Then tea with mint in traditional pots and glasses was in order, and so was the bill, that came to around EGP 800.