The in-laws are in town and her royal self and I wanted to take them somewhere new, somewhere spectacularly new, a place they had never heard of before. But because they grew up in Cairo and visit fairly frequently, this was not an easy assignment; and because food in our family is always something of a celebration, and they are only here for a short time, this was not the time to experiment or take risks.
It had to be classy, it had to be oriental, and it had to be good. Happy inspiration came at the newly opened Bab El Nil in the Fairmont Nile Towers.
Bab El Nil began as the hotel’s Ramadan tent in 2010. It was so popular in the two years that it ran that that management decided to spin the concept into a full-service, year-round restaurant that opened to the public last summer. This too I imagine will be highly successful for it is the sort of dining experience that Egypt does best: nostalgic, dreamy, fun and relaxing, but with a light, modern and playful character.
With interiors by Belgian designer Gauthier Guillaume, who also did O Bar and Zeitouna, and whose company GG and Grace Creative Concepts won the International Properties 2013 Best Hotel Interior Africa Award, you know at first glance that this is a carefully considered project and that the food and service will reflect the same intensity and attention to detail that went into the overall concept.
The black and white piano key marble flooring, bright pop art fabrics, and movie poster prints of the smallish indoor dining room function as a foyer for the large, covered, river-side terrace, where comfortable chairs and couches in earthy tones are spread out and separated with plenty of greenery so as to give every group a bit of privacy and make the main dining room open and spacious.
Service was attentive and professional without being obtrusive. Some nights there is live music, while on others guests can play chess, backgammon or cards while smoking shisha and watching whatever they want on the private flat screen televisions mounted above each seating area.
Or, if you are more into talking, as we were, come in the afternoon, enjoy the warm winter sunshine, turn off the television, and focus on the food.
Here too Bab El Nil earns the highest marks. The menus, designed by Fairmont’s Marketing Department, are a collection of biographies of Egypt’s greatest stars from Soad Hosny to Riad Al Kasabgy. Even after we ordered we held on to them because they were so much fun to read.
The food selection itself is typically Lebanese/Egyptian. I was disappointed that they do not offer kibbeh nayeh (a raw minced beef dish), but they have everything else you can imagine from molokheya to halawiat to manakish and a dozen different kinds of tagines.
In addition to the full array of salads and cold and hot mezzes, they have all the grill selections including salmon and sea bass, and traditional Middle Eastern desserts. They serve shisha, of course, with over twenty different flavours including jasmine and mint, which is exclusive to the Fairmont. They also have beer and wine. And for a hotel of this stature, the prices are quite reasonable.
We tried as much as we could. The hummus was beautifully presented with apple slices, mint, olive oil and paprika and had a sweet smoky flavour. The wara einab were the best I have had in Cairo, large, loose, lemony and moist. The kidneys were a bit over-cooked and the pomegranate sauce had begun to separate, so some care should be taken there, but the fatteh was amazing as was the kaware’a. The lamb chops were perfectly grilled, full of smoky flavour, and served on their own table top coal braziers with grilled onions and green peppers.
Syrian Chef Adnan Ouklal is in his element with this classic menu that is every bit as reminiscent of the good times as shisha smoke and old movies. Bab El Nil has an out-of-time quality to it, a space that will take you away from the day-to-day concerns of our increasingly hectic city. It’s therapeutic, and we’ll be back soon.