Had a weird Iftar today. Went to an Asian place, just for fun, just for a change from the nightly Lebanese. It was superb food if somewhat odd for the season. For starters we broke our fast with pickled cabbage (kimchi) and raw garlic in soy vinegar. Then there were the Korean businessmen sitting at the table next to us drinking beer and grilling large slabs of bacon. They have every right of course, but it was hard not to notice.
Eating and at home is best, traditional Egyptian Ramadan meals, talking politics and food, bickering with the family, watching musalsalaat. And restaurant food at Iftar time is not always an ideal option. It’s like going out to eat on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, absolutely the worst two days of the year for restaurant meals as Anthony Bourdain reminds us. The kitchen and staff are always stressed. Imagine having four weeks of Mother’s Days with a stressed staff that is also fasting. Not a formula for a fantastic meal.
This year there are more Ramadan menus than ever. Online you can find list after list of people’s favorites and there is some remarkable food out there. For Egyptian, Abu El Sid is trustworthy and consistent, and some like Sequoia, although frankly the last time I ate there I couldn’t tell the hummus from the tahina and the shish tawouk was so dry even the tahina (hummus?) couldn’t save it. Much better is Le Deck at the Sofitel el Gezirah. Like Sequoia it sits right on the water, so the setting is beautiful; best of all you can order the mixed grill from the Kebabgi next door, truly classic Egyptian Ramadan fare.
This year though as always Lebanese is the in thing for eating out. I’ve always liked Sabaya at the Semiramis; I have heard great things about the Arjeela at the Novotel as well as the just opened Tamara in City Stars; and Taboula can usually be counted on although I must say that they are not as steady as they used to be.
My must try this year is Abdel Wahab. I must admit I was skeptical. The original Abdel Wahab in Achrafieh (Beirut) serves some of the best Lebanese food I’ve ever had, but when a one-of-a-kind place goes chain—it now has a second branch in Beirut (Monod), one in Riyadh, one in Jeddah, and now one here in Cairo—it usually loses something in translation.
When visiting Beirut I used to stay at the Hotel Albergo precisely because it was just up the street from the foods I craved and could not get anywhere else: the kebbeh nayya (minced raw beef with bulgar and spices), sawda nayyeh (cubed fresh raw lamb liver) and the tiny headless birds, grilled and served in a smoky sweet pomegranate sauce and eaten whole. Plus naturally the entire sweep of Lebanese starters and grilled meats served by a consummately professional staff with the usual Lebanese good humor and sense of hospitality. My friends and I used to get the hotel’s car to meet me us at the airport, give the driver our bags, then take a taxi straight to the restaurant. Magic.
Hence you can understand my hesitation when I learned that they had opened up in Zamalek. Finally, this Ramadan, after a year of indecision due to the fear of being disappointed, I went for Iftar. It did my head in. The menu was the same as in Beirut, the food every bit as good, the service every bit as professional, the Nile setting, gorgeous, the ambience, just right for Ramadan.
I was disappointed that they did not have the sawda nayyeh on the night we went, but they had all my other favorites, and with chefs and spices and sauces all imported from Lebanon, it tasted as good as I remembered. True, the spiciness was damped down a bit to accommodate Egyptian taste buds, but that’s a necessary business decision in this town and I didn’t mind for the meal was impeccable.
We tried everything we could fit onto our table and it was all lovely, but I was particularly impressed by the fatoush which was as fresh and vibrant as anything I had ever had in this city, and by the grilled lamb cutlets Abdel Wahab cooked with a spicy sumac rub that rocked my world. This place is the bomb and I cannot get enough. Just go there. Now.