If you were unlucky enough to be born in the 1980s, the name Torii will send the wheels of time swinging back to blonde, busty prima donnas and an iced up quiff a razor blade couldn’t cut. I’m talking about Tori Spelling and Matt Dylan. The latter apparently had some serious parental problems, while the other was last seen at Cairo film festival sending press to sleep with some seriously anodyne answers. Yes, to clarify, you are reading a restaurant review.
If you happen to be a golden oldie, a wee nipper, or indeed have a wider cultural reference than “Beverly Hills 90210, you might be aware that Torii is actually a traditional Japanese gate found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine.
My dinner partner was a former flat-mate who still hasn’t forgiven me for moving out. On my recent trip back to England she demanded I return with Maltesers, reparations for not returning the key. Instead I thought I’d treat her to sushi, until I found out she didn’t like raw fish. Then I thought I’d still treat her to Sushi but I would be eating her share.
Walking through the ‘Jazeera towers’ walkway of the Cairo Marriot Hotel, one passes the children’s play area, a monstrosity crammed with great bouncy castles and ill-treated Philipino maids chasing little brats. Praise be, Torii had none of this catering for the tastes of the nouveau-riche. A serenity-restoring oasis of calm, it has all the tranquility of a Japanese tea garden (although not, unfortunately, a Shinto shrine): thick wooden Japanese cushion upholstered chairs and benches, and pebbles lining walls glowing with a silky pebbled waterfall.
With a level of obsequiousness fitting for a five-star hotel, we were instantly attended to by a waiter decked out in very apt Japanese garb. There was nothing particularly Japanese about the drinks menu; my partner went for a mint and lemon cocktail, no ice – she was recovering from a cold – while I went for a chocolate milkshake.
If Yoshiaki Shiraishi knew chocolate milkshake was put on the same menu as raw fish, he’d be turning in his grave. Taking a measured guess as to why, I’d probably say it was to placate toddlers, such as myself, who after a good slurp might scuttle off to the Marriott playpen.
Although few diners occupied the restaurant, our drinks didn’t come for a good quarter of an hour. Luckily for our waiter, there was much catching up to be done, which meant little need for complaints. When the drinks did come, the milkshake, bad move on my part, was not the best I’ve tasted in Cairo. Although it was thick, it was more ice-milky thick than dollapy chocaltley thick. The lemon mint cocktail, on the other hand, had some real zing and on taking a sip I instantly regretted my own sweet-toothed misjudgment.
On confronting the menu, it dawned on me why they had taken so long preparing the drinks. The super-wide choice ranging from Zensai Ippin Ryori, Osuimono, the Tieshoku, Maki Sushi Rolls, Euro-Japanese Fusion Cuisine, Nigiri Sushi, Menrui and Donburi, Sashimi – and breath – T-Maki Sushi, Sonomono, and Agemono and Yakimono hit me like a great Kung Fu kick.
And breath again. I was left concussed for a few moments after scanning the menu, marooned on an island of where Japanese dishes grow as abundant as date palms. Surveying the scene, and noting I was rather a little more than flummoxed by this menu-cum-romantic novella, my dining partner took the reigns.
“You will have the Suzuki followed by the Teka-Don, whereas I will stick with Tori Kara-age. We will share the Tempura Ice Cream.
Well, that seemed to sort things out.
But the Miso soup came first, which was surprising since we hadn’t ordered it. Maybe it’s a freebee, I whispered criminally across the table. It transpired that the Miso soup, although it can be served as a starter, comes with the Teka-Don, which, in case you were interested, falls under Menrui and Donburi dishes (rice and noodles).
Miso, not to be mistaken for Mizo, a male belly dancer I once met in Hurghada, is a traditional Japanese food made by fermenting rice, barley and soya beans. I’d heard it can be made into a thick paste, so was expecting something resembling Egyptian foul to appear before me. Instead it arrived in the form of a dilute dark brown soup, in which Tofu cubes and seaweed were floating. I’m happy to eat anything that looks like a pond; it makes me feel healthy. On taste, it had a hearty flavor and seemed well seasoned, a firm start to the meal.
Next came the mains. My Teka-Don, and my partner’s Tori Kara-age along with what I had intended to be my starter, the Suzuki, all came served on white dishes with unusual twists that so resemble the orient. My Teka-Don looked very exciting: black seaweed strips, sticky to the touch, crisscrossed over raw, pink tuna on a bed of soft sushi rice, all garnished with picked ginger, a lettuce leaf, some grated carrot and the Sushi requisite: wasabi. It resembled more a work of art than a simple meal.
The Suzuki, two simple sushi pieces of sea bass, also came with the wasabi, pickled ginger and lettuce, and each had a bowl of Soya sauce, in which it is customary to dip one’s Sushi. My partner had warned me against the vices of eating raw fish, it’s all far too Hannibal Lector to be humane. I began to see that the next day when eyeing up my fleshy chicken on the chopping board. But the tuna and sea bass were so delicate; the flavors so subtle, the texture so smooth, that it’s hard not to be converted once you’ve taken chomp. The rice was good as well, just simple sushi rice, but cooked as it should be.
My partner, however, was not so impressed with her own dish. The chicken legs and sweet soya sauce came alone, although, saying that, it did not stake differently on the menu. But the price didn’t really translate to the cost of a few fried chicken legs. Despite the chicken being soft and tender to the bite, we both expected something a little more grand than KFC standard, which, with obligatory taxes and services (why do Egyptian restaurants turn your meals out into a math class by never including taxes in the prices states?), came to around LE 90.
While our attentive and smiley waiter was clearing our plates, I launched into telling him the story of when we tricked a friend into eating a whole ball of wasabi, the bright green horse radish paste that, if taken alone, makes you feel your nasal passage is on fire. He ran like a bat out of hell to the toilet, and never forgave us. In my excitement I managed to eject a ball of spittle, which went hurtling to our waiter’s nose. But although smiley one held his nerves steady, and his fixed grin, he must have been so traumatized he forgot our deserts. Either that or it was just a case of incompetence.
In any case, half an hour later we were still waiting for the ice cream; it was clear we had been forgotten. On re-ordering, it came in a few minutes. This is my first experience of deep fried ice cream, and was the incarnation of a heavenly being. Vanilla beauty in a warm, crispy shell, that when broken exudes cool temptation. It was accompanied by fruit to temper one’s guilt: water melon and grapes.
Our bill came to a grand LE 368, including taxes and a compulsory service charge. Depending on your wage, it might break the bank: these are European hotel prices after all. I could have taken a trip to Virgin Megastores, and got the “Beverly Hills 90210 box set for a similar price, but, then, it’s no longer 1995.