Though I like to think of myself as a generally well-cultured, intellectual person, when it comes to food, I like to stick to the basics. Come dinnertime, I am much more likely to go looking for a good burger (or in Cairo, a good shawarma) than an elegant plate of sushi, and I typically try to avoid seafood at all costs. My policy tends to be that if it has tentacles, gills or fins, it belongs in the ocean and not on my plate. But when I was invited to Risas Lounge to sample the refined cuisine of Spanish tapas, I could not say no, particularly when I found out there would be sangrias involved.
The tasting event was organised by two Egyptian entrepreneurs, Amr Shamel and Karim Biblawi, who discovered tapas while studying for their MBA in Spain and wanted to share their dining experience with Egypt. So they flew in Chef Paco from Barcelona for a three-day tapas fiesta onboard the Nile Maxim boat in Zamalek.
My meal got off to a good start with a tuna belly salad. Mixed with asparagus, avocado and tomato on a bed of greens and topped with light vinaigrette, I did not find myself too far outside my comfort zone and had nothing to complain about. My salad was immediately followed by a plate of artichokes sprinkled with beans. The accompanying sauce had a nice tangy taste to it and I polished off my plate pretty quickly.
My night took a turn for the exotic when they brought out the next plate bearing an assortment of montaditos. Literally translated “mounted”, the course consisted of various proteins stacked elegantly on various types of bread. The first was creamed crab and corn on whole wheat bread, topped with shrimp. The second was duck and roasted red peppers on a bed of cream cheese, atop a baguette. I have to say, this particular combination of flavours and textures was absolutely fantastic, a real highlight of the evening. The third was a thin strip of salmon on a cracker, topped with caviar and brought me far outside the realm of familiar tastes. Having never before sampled the delicacy that is fish eggs, I cannot speak as to the quality of this particular element. But they looked beautiful and tasted, well, fishy.
I cannot deny that the presentation of my next course did not get my juices flowing. In contrast with the other beautifully presented courses, the dollop of black goo topped with a red pepper that I was told was black paella looked less than appetising. It was creamy but a bit bland and the texture of the squid tentacles mixed in with the rice was a little difficult for me stomach. But that was nothing compared to the signature ingredient that gives the dish its colour: squid ink. My fellow tasters raved about the dish, but I think this one was just a bit too exotic for me.
I ended the meal on a high note though with four skewers of breaded shrimp and an accompanying rameso dipping sauce. As I said at the beginning, I am not a big seafood fan and shrimp definitely fall into the category of creatures that I prefer to see in the ocean, but this shrimp was fantastic. And the zesty rameso sauce, tasting of tomato and garden herbs, was so delicious I found myself trying to wipe out every last drop. And of course, I washed everything down with the best sangrias I have had in Cairo.
Altogether, my first tapas experience was an exciting and delightful one and I can see why Shamel and Biblawi were eager to share their discovery with their homeland. Based on the reactions of my fellow tasters, I would say the upper echelon of Egyptian society is more than ready to say bienvenido to the best that Spanish cuisine has to offer.