As the first year anniversary of my Bite Me Cairo column draws near, I have been reflecting on the fate of the people, places and dining trends that I have been writing about over the past year. Some things I got dead wrong. There are, to date, no food trucks in Cairo, which is a shame. Sadly, the businessmen I have spoken to who explored this promising option found that the problem, as usual, was the government: they could not get permits to park the trucks in the places where they would do the most good. Typical bureaucratic shortsightedness.
I wish I had been wrong about the seemingly limitless expansion of cafés and fast food outlets. Just last week signs went up for yet another mega fast-food court, this one on Road 90, just outside the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the Future University in Egypt (FUE). Food on these campuses is already bad enough, mostly consisting of chains such as Beirut Express, TBS, Subway and McDonald’s at AUC and, at FUE, places like Arabiata, Candy Mix and Choco Bar. Good thing they have a School of Dentistry. Anyway, now the students will also have easy access to Hardees, KFC, Tikka, Pizza Hut and God only knows what other horrors. Enough, really.
The general lack of quality in the cafés that are sprouting all over the city is symptomatic of the same problem: customers do not want to try anything new, and business owners are happy to stick to the same old formula. Hence Trio, a promising slow food restaurant with a talented American chef and a local, earth-friendly ethos, has been replaced by yet another run-of-the-mill café, 3enab. From the looks of it, and given what we all know about the market here, it seems they made the right decision. Dreary.
There are some exceptions, such as the very nicely done Wel3a Café, which has just opened a new branch on 33 Abul Feda in Zamalek. The reason they are so good is that they do one thing really well: shisha. The problem with most of the rest of the cafés is that they serve a mediocre product and try to be all things to all people with almost no thought for the food or service, which works because people will flock there anyway, regardless of how bad it is.
Some places which showed early promise last year have gone out of business like Top Dawgs and the Snug, either because people did not get the concept or because they had licensing issues. Au Petit Bistro in Mohandessin experienced a steady decline in quality that led to its demise. And City Stars witnessed a series of closings; the ill-conceived Nordsee fish chain sunk, Wagamama went up in flames, and On The Border slunk back across it.
Other places have waxed and waned. Consistency is always the issue, and while some restaurants have reached new heights, others continue to fight the downhill slide into mediocrity. Oddly, two of these are owned and managed by the same people. A year ago I complained bitterly about the lackadaisical service and tortured cooking at Sequoia, only to find myself now going back again and again. The new design by Eklego is warm, hip and inviting; Mori Sushi is putting out an excellent product with one waiter specifically trained to handle these orders, which he does in a cheery and professional manner; someone has found the rhythm in the grill and salads section again; the management is training and overseeing the staff; and customers have returned. I really enjoy this place and that is something I honestly thought I would never find myself saying.
On the other side, the eternally plagued Left Bank, a place I want so desperately to love, continues to struggle. Having opened in January 2012, there were problems from the start because the chef, who was hired to do one thing (pastries), was then asked to do another (everything else). The problem is that the management never figured out what to do with this place, at various times trying to make it into a literary café, an arts centre, a film club, a place for cooking lessons, and a proper restaurant for grownups with beer and wine. Any time a restaurant goes through that many changes in that space of time, you know they don’t know what they are doing. The food was mediocre-to-bad and the service abominable.
Finally, after firing the first international chef and failing to find another one, the owners had the good sense to hire local consultants Sarah Khanna and Wessam Massoud to come in and fix the problems, which they did by cutting out all the silliness and getting back to basics, things that should have been done before ever opening in the first place. They completed their mission successfully. But now the restaurant is back to running itself and is slowly failing to maintain the reforms and standards. According to my own experiences, and the many comments I have heard from other customers, entropy is winning out, and Left Bank is slowly but surely sliding back into chaos. It’s a shame. And the reason is simple. No one is minding the store.