The five-star Sonesta hotel restaurants offer food from around the world, and representing the Middle East is Baalbak.
The small description on the hotel’s website promises “Lebanese specialities,” and “an authentic Middle Eastern experience.” I was very much looking forward to a five-star restaurant’s take on a concept that has been successful in various restaurants around Cairo.
However, the restaurant failed to display anything that was particularly Lebanese. I also fear that holidaymakers who visit Baalbak might come away with a negative view of Middle Eastern cuisine entirely, as Baalbek was bland and boring.
The staff of the restaurant was welcoming and attentive, however, there is more to hospitality than being polite.
The 10pm opening time made us question the breadth of the clientele they would be catering to and our doubts were confirmed as only one other table was occupied in the restaurant when we arrived. By midnight the numbers had picked up but were struggling to reach 15.
It was instantly apparent that the restaurant was sadly lacking in atmosphere; there was no music and the shrill ringing of a telephone at random intervals only highlighted the silence.
The lighting emphasised the cheap quality of the décor, which appeared to be the set for a high-school performance of a Greek tragedy. This was a far cry from images on the hotel website that portray a classy Arabian Nights style restaurant.
When the menu arrived we struggled to find those dishes that represented Lebanese cuisine, a good example was the ‘Lebanese falafel’ that according to the waiter was in fact, Egyptian. I was disappointed when I was told that the restaurant’s speciality dish was the mixed grill.
We ordered a selection of mezze, including the Egyptian falafel, babaghanoug, vine leaves, fattoush salad and fried calamari. All were priced between EGP 20-35 each, but unfortunately only the falafel was worth the money.
The babaghanoug tasted more like tehina with some bits in it, and the ingredients for the fattoush dressing seemed to have been thrown together carelessly, resulting in an overpowering vinegary taste.
The calamari tasted bland and came without any sauce, however tartar dip is available upon request. The vine leaves were probably the biggest shocker of the evening. They either were recently defrosted, undercooked or stale, because when I eagerly tried to spear one on my fork the rice inside turned out to be nearly solid.
The falafel was light and very tasty but on the whole we were very disappointed with the mezze. Being in a Middle Eastern themed restaurant we expected a higher quality, especially since most restaurants in Cairo manage this with ease.
The mixed grill was EGP 98 and it included a stuffed sausage, shish tawouk, a lamb chop, veal and kofta. Sadly, also the speciality dish of Baalbak was far from special.
The meat was cooked well but the chef seemed to have ignored his spice rack. The kofta was especially disappointing, because in my opinion, it is usually the most flavoursome of the meats in a mixed grill. It was served with soggy french-fries and half a grilled tomato.
For dessert we chose a fruit platter and rice pudding. The fruit platter was not as fresh as it looked, and to my disbelief, the rice pudding was so frozen that parts of it were impenetrable.
After calling attention to this, another dessert was offered but there was no more rice pudding. I had mahalebeya; this was made well and tasted good, which at this point was a welcomed surprise.
The restaurants advertises live entertainment, and a little while into our dinner a man played keyboard over a backing track, but the live music and the track were poorly synchronised. After a short performance, the restaurant returned to silence but a little while later the keyboardist returned with two men who played the tabla and the tambourine and a woman who sang beautifully.
Overall the evening was a big disappointment; the lack of atmosphere for most of the evening made us uncomfortable and the food was just not up to the level you can expect from a five-star hotel or even a regular restaurant for that matter.
Baalbak failed to deliver on its promises, especially since there was very little Lebanese influence on the menu. There are a multitude of restaurants that offer the same menu for lower prices and with a lot more atmosphere.