By Heba Elkayal
Rarely, if ever, is a novel restaurant or food spot in Cairo executed with a full concept in mind that runs from the interiors to the menu. Left Bank, a new cultural cafe that opened Nile-side last Sunday, is different.
Left Bank Bistro, Books and Bakery is the full name of this new venture, and the concept behind it is this: a beautiful space with a modern and simple aesthetic, offering a delicious French and Italian-style bistro menu served in a venue tailored for cultural activities and gatherings.
Bakery selling bread and pastries will be on offer for taking home, bimonthly cultural events will be organized and a bookstore will be selling bestsellers and magazines within the space.
“Initially, the concept of Left Bank was to revive the cultural salons of downtown Cairo in the manner of Groppi and Cafe Riche,” says owner Islam Mahdy, “then it became a more meaningful venture after the revolution when Egyptians gained a sense of freedom to debate and discuss things. There is an explosion of art and culture.”
Owned and operated by Urbane Restaurants, the owning and management company of Sequoia, Left Bank is located in an empty space next to the white canopied structure of Sequoia. This space is different to the nighttime dinner and shisha appeal of Sequoia, a highly popular and successful restaurant and lounge.
Mahdy decided to take his initial concept and tailor it to suit the mood and feel of revolutionary Cairo.
Left Bank takes its name and point of inspiration from Paris’s famed district of cafes, bars and bistros that have served as gathering points for writers and other intellectual luminaries. The intention with Left Bank is to create a new form of space so to speak, inspired by these old institutes of Cairo yet with a modern-day appeal.
While Left Bank will not be serving alcohol, there will be no fee for anyone wishing to bring their own liquor or wine, similar to the BYOB concept found in cafes and bars around universities in the States.
For the menu and bakery, Mahdy brought in Chef Benoit Laboureux, a Frenchman with 16 years of experience working with the likes of the Pourcel Brothers and Alain Ducasse, all are three-Michelin-star winners for their restaurants.
Laboureux’s specialty as a pastry chef was honed from years working with these celebrity cooks and during a six-year stint as the Manager of PAUL’s, a chain of French-style food and pastries, in China. Laboureux has even left his restaurant Le Jardin, which he had set up in Thailand, to come to Cairo.
A food tasting of the menu was a brief yet indulgent introduction to tiny fresh bread buns, tuna and potato salad, seafood pizza topped with clam shells, creamy pasta dishes and sandwiches with lovely filling combinations of chicken and dressings. The menu is not intended to be too creative or original, explained Mahdy, and the intention is to introduce customers to classic familiar dishes to build a trust and rapport with Chef Laboureux before he “gets creative.”
What’s in store? We shall see down the line, but the classics for starters were stunning, particularly in the dessert department.
A shot glass of crème fraiche and strawberry coulis, chocolate mousses, fruit tarts and chocolate cakes, each was more delicious than the other. I can wax lyrical about the crust of a tart or the texture of a mousse but instead will advise you to try Laboureux’s éclair: neither soggy nor too crisp, the coffee éclair was stuffed with the fluffiest custard imaginable.
A glance through the menu shows that prices for food are fair and comparable to most coffee shops in Cairo: salads from LE 35-55, sandwiches from LE 20-35, pizzas from LE 40-50, desserts from LE 4-30. Breads from the bakery will retail for LE 9-30 a loaf, depending on whether it’s ciabatta or sweet chestnut bread.
I suspect the concept for Left Bank’s interiors will also be a major factor in its future success. Mahdy brought in award-winning interior design company Eklego to create a space that is evocative of new Egypt: hip and revolution-themed. The interior design is both directly inspired by Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the revolution, while also paying homage to it.
The floor is a mosaic of grey and beige stones which, if you look closely, create an irregular pattern of lines and circles. The pattern is an aerial view of the street grid of downtown Cairo. Tahrir Square is denoted with a circle at the front of the space and the various streets snake away from that center. Here in the center is where performances will be staged.
The shelves running alongside the walls of Left Bank have been designed to reflect the buildings around Tahrir Square.
The Mogamma shelves are to be found in the bakery, and bookshelves at the far end of the space are styled after the Cairo Tower. Best of all, a retractable ceiling and the place’s storefront windows can all be opened to let in air and sunshine during cool weather months.
There is a tree house and a small garden set up to the side for children to play. Small potted fruits trees bearing lemons and kumquats bring some lovely greenery into the space, a coffee bar under a large menu and the month’s performances are all set in chalk on blackboards.
There are some clever touches throughout the space but the cleverest thing about it all is that the furniture was designed and produced in Egypt.
Mahdy is intent that Left Bank will become a space to host classes and events. Cooking classes by Laboureux will be on offer amongst other things and bimonthly performance nights will be arranged. He’s encouraging people to step forward, enjoy the space and bring others along.
On January 30, Mashrou’ El-Mareekh (Mars Project), an open mic movement, will be the first to make use of this space, and starting February, flower arranging classes, art classes and even a graffiti workshop led by the graffiti artist Ganzeer will be set up. Cooking classes with Chef Laboureux for the month of February will be free.
The feedback by guests invited during a private event on Saturday is a good indication of how the place will be received: I didn’t hear one complaint or criticism from anyone, but simply awe and excited glee. Everyone is eager that a new place tailored for the new mood of political discourse is now available. Being Nile-side is simply like the cherry on top of one of Laboureux’s beautiful pastries.
53 Aboul Feda St.,
Tel: (02) 2735 0014
Delicious creations by Chef Benoit Laboureux, who created the menu.
Try Left Bank’s seafood pizza.