At dinner yesterday, my friend Adam asked me: “Are there any really good restaurants in Egypt?” I had to think about that. Of course there are. There are places that do grilled meats, fish, chicken and various traditional Egyptian dishes really well.
But that was not what he meant. What he meant was: “What is the state of fine dining? Are there any local places that can compete with the international ones? Can I eat in Cairo the way I eat in New York or London?”
The short answer is no. But there is a more nuanced one, which is that in Cairo some restaurants are amazing for a short while; others are good some nights and disappointing the rest of the week; and, more often than not, you will find a restaurant that does one or two things superbly well but insists on keeping fifty mediocre items on the menu.
The reasons for this, like it or not, are complex and, to a certain extent, driven by the market. Customers here are famous for putting style before substance and not everyone knows their banh mi from their bocconcini.
Bearing this in mind, Left Bank’s consultants Sarah Khanna and Wesam Masoud have succeeded in revising the menu and setting new standards for the staff both kitchen and front-of-house—and this was exactly what they were asked to do.
You will find a few surprises—the aforementioned halloumi banh mi, the bocconcini instead of standard mozzarella in the Caprese salad, a fried egg on a BLT; but the philosophy of the owners of Left Bank is to make dishes their customers know, which seems to be what they want, and Khanna and Masoud provide fresh, properly seasoned, and well-plated versions thereof. I visited five times before writing this review: I came, I saw, I asked questions, I tasted, and I feel confident that this is so.
Naturally I have some personal favourites. For breakfast it is Eggs Hemingway, which is like Eggs Benedict but with smoked salmon and a bit of arugula. And for lunch, the Left Bank Salad, honey-glazed goat cheese on arugula with braised sacrine lettuce, walnuts, roasted mushrooms, golden raisins, and a light house dressing.
A select variety of the usual breakfast and lunch offerings are also on the menu including an assortment of tried-and-true pastas and pizzas. These you will have to try for yourself. Unlike more creative dishes, pastas and pizzas have a particularly subjective aspect precisely because people are so familiar with them. Like art and music, people just know what they like, and they do not always agree, not only with each other, but especially with chefs and food writers.
I maintain that there are objective standards in food. If there were not then cooking competitions and shows like Masterchef and Kitchen Nightmares (not to mention restaurant reviews) could not possibly endure.
But unlike, say, hamburgers, which are really close in terms of preparation and flavour, everyone has grown up with their own, beloved childhood vision of pizza Margherita and penne Arrabiata; thus it all comes down to individual preference in regards to the texture of the dough. Left Bank serves their pasta al dente and their pizzas thin and crispy. Your call.
There is salmon too, a beef filet, and a brined, pan-fried chicken breast with mushroom sauce that was as tender as any I have had anywhere in the world. Normally I am not a fan of chicken breasts, but this one was cooked with TLC and was superb.
You will find service much improved as well, which was part of Khanna’s mandate and a frequent complaint before. So that is happy news and clear evidence that the Left Bank management is listening to what their customers are saying. Another case in point, even after the launch of the revised menu many were asking for a chicken sandwich, which has now been added.
I am wondering how well that will go down. Ground chicken lightly pan fried served with homemade pesto mayonnaise with celery, arugula and home-made mustard, I loved it. I ate mine and my neighbour’s too—but this was because the pesto mayonnaise was too strong for her taste.
And herein lies the dilemma. When you try to give people the familiar dishes that they ask for, you encounter that eternal push/pull between what people think they want and what in the hands of talented chefs can turn a mundane meal into something memorable. All too frequently customers are unwilling to stretch their imaginations to accommodate new flavours and new combinations, but they too have their jobs to do. Truly great restaurants and a fine-dining culture require a vast fine-dining clientele. And that is the answer to Adam’s question.