Tamarai opened its doors early January amid whispers across the city about who would be invited to the opening night. Reservation numbers were never answered, and trying to pull strings to get a booking was impossible for close to six weeks after opening. I only managed to get my humble self and a party of five friends a table last Sunday.
The latest addition to Cairo s ever more sopisticated culinary map has become all the rage amid a fine dining scene traditionally dominated by hotel outlets. With restaurant goers becoming finicky about their food, rumors of kitchen wars between chefs carry more truth than fiction as each restaurant tries to lure patrons and create a frenzy for their tables.
Both modish and exclusive, Tamarai has found a cozy spot on the premier league.
With a spacious dining area and a terrace set to open in April where you can sip cocktails with a view of the Nile, Tamarai has challenged every watering hole in town. But this is no ordinary watering hole. It is both restaurant and bar lounge. A setting for guests to select the experience they want to share with others be it dining on fine cuisine or enjoying a relaxed evening in the lounge area.
But may I emphasize beautiful guests? Seemingly catering to a sophisticated crowd of 30-somethings, there is a drive to create a space that will challenge naysayers that Cairo does not have the capacity to entertain a la New York or Paris.
A lot of thought seems to have gone into the interiors, with Cairo-based architectural and design firm Shahira H. Fahmy creating a space that is both elegant and cosmopolitan. The word Tamarai refers to a lotus flower that is said to bloom in mud and dirt and perhaps those behind the creation of Tamarai were hoping to create something exquisite too.
The concept behind the restaurant’s interiors is creative and practical. Relying heavily on symbolic references to Pharaonic design elements, large pillars and walls covered in locally sourced limestone left in its rough unpolished form, exudes a cool comfort.
A central bar is made of wood ribbing that juts out sharply, fusing rigid lines with soft curves found elsewhere in the dining and lounge chairs.
The drinks menu is extensive and includes some creative cocktails. You ll certainly be spoilt for choice.
An exposed ceiling reveals air conditioning vents and fire sprinkler pipes, a cliché design concept and eye sore that was perhaps intentional so as not to eat away from the height of the dining area.
But this is compensated for by the soft, muted colors of the upholstery throughout the restaurant, and the gentle lighting that is comfortable on the eyes.
Decor aside, the food took center stage.
I once read an essay by a notable food critic who said he calculated the success of a restaurant based on its bread rolls. Starting off with Evian water and bread and butter, a friend whispered incredulously, “There’s a French man behind this bread. And there most certainly is. Spies in the kitchen tell me that the head chef hails from Britanny, and the menu is indicative that there is someone in the kitchen who is fusing classic and traditional French cuisine with a Mediterranean touch.
A basket of whole grain and white bread rolls are repeatedly offered throughout the meal and there is something so comfortable and nostalgic about its taste – like memories of a family holiday spent in the countryside, buying fresh bread from the boulangerie every morning. But I shouldn t digress.
I started off with Salmon Gravelax: salmon marinated and served with potato bits in sesame seed which to my delight was additionally topped off with caviar and had an endive and lettuce salad dressed in the same marinade as that of the salmon. Portions were fair for a starter and went well with that great bread. A friend had the Chicken Curry Salad: chicken breast salad with spicy curry dressing and an array of colorful capsicum, which was deemed tasty and also considered to come in a good sized portion.
But it was the beef carpaccio served with arugula and topped with flakes of rich parmesan cheese that was undoubtedly the favorite appetizer. Passed around the table, all nodded their heads in satisfied approval at the sweet tenderness of the carpaccio. A discussion of Egypt’s best carpaccio ensued, and it was unanimously that Tamarai now serves the best in the country.
For our main course, I ordered the fresh Mediterranean sea bass roasted in virgin olive oil served with red lentils and almonds, which interestingly enough, was served on a bed of pureed almonds. The sea bass tasted fresh and was light, but unless you love intensely nutty flavors, this plate is not for you.
The burgundy steak, roasted beef tenderloin cooked in morel red wine sauce with macaroni gratin, showed off the grilling and sauce-making skills.
The meat was served perfectly pink on the inside, perfectly soft on the outside. The knife sliced through the meat as if it was warm butter, and chewing wasn’t necessary. It dissolved on your tongue as one savored the dry sweet flavor of the wine sauce. A side order of potato gratin perfectly complemented both steak dishes and my sea bass with a smoky and creamy flavor making one believe in the theory that richly flavored foods physically and psychologically compensate for small portions.
Memories of dessert make me giddy. The Trilogy, poached pears cooked in red wine syrup and served with cinnamon ice cream, danced on my tongue.
The intense flavor of the wine sauce was smoothed by the creamy texture of the ice cream as the pear tender after its poach delivered a nutty sweetness. Like the bread, the soufflé screamed it too was made by French hands.
Intense in its chocolate flavor and thickly bodied, hushed silence overcame us as we each savored our mouthful.
There wasn t much any of us could criticize about the entire meal. French in flavor and artful presentation, there was something comforting about the meal, like hearty home-cooked food. Dishes were not pretentious, nor fused with awkward flavors.
It is obvious that there is a genius in the kitchen balancing the challenge of cooking for diners who seek a new experience in Cairo and at the same time, can match any gastronomical experience abroad. It is a place where you can dine again and again as the menu is extensive, and yields a lot of promise.
Staff was courteous is responding to our demands and they were able to lead us around the menu with ease. Slightly soft spoken, they seemed hesitant as they waited upon us but service was prompt and always sincere.
Dining early, only one other table and a few lounge tables were full and the music playing was nostalgic of the early 80s; making you wonder whether Tamarai was truly booked throughout the past six weeks or if that was simply a PR tactic.
Although not a venue for dancing, my table most certainly wanted to get up and dance. Perhaps it was the euphoria of stumbling upon a restaurant that seems to have (almost) everything right, or the heady flavors and great interiors.
Tamarai’s owners certainly seem to have created a beautiful place in Cairo that will retain a sense of longevity and entertain us for quite some time to come.
TamaraiNile City Towers, CornichTel: 0124566666