There are some basic rules to restaurant reviewing. Do not use words like “yummy” or “delicious.” Avoid related clichés such as “food for thought” or “good to the last bite.” Go incognito (i.e. don’t let the owners or managers know that you work for a newspaper or magazine so as to avoid special treatment). Pay for your own meals. Visit a place more than once before making a recommendation. Never review a restaurant the first week it opens; there are still way too many variables.
All food writers break these rules. Sometimes you are in a hurry to meet a deadline and recklessly throw out a cliché without revising. If you’ve been in the business a while, it’s not always easy to keep a low profile. Sometimes you get comped or invited to a menu tasting or restaurant opening. And sometimes you want to get the scoop on your competitors, in which case you are forced to go to a soft opening and publish your first impressions.
I went to the opening of Alchemy (8 Amman Square in Dokki) last November, and yes, on that first occasion, I enjoyed their hospitality, and yes, they know how I am. But I did not do a review for this column because I wanted to give Alchemy a chance to establish its identity, to see how the menu would settle in, and to see who the clientele would become. Since then I have visited this sleek lounge/restaurant a half dozen times (and paid my bills, thank you), I have my answers, and I am ready to write.
To begin with, one of the reasons I have returned to Alchemy again and again is that it is a beautiful space. The golden creations of sculptor Nathan Doss are set off by the dark, brooding paintings of Akram Fadl, and a trip-hop sound track make for a neo-medieval fantasy setting that is an appropriate background for a menu that revolves around the elements of earth, air, water and fire.
It’s an adult place. Most customers are in their mid-twenties to mid-forties, musicians, social media types, journalists, food and beverage industry people, the work hard/play hard crowd. People who want to have a drink, a nosh, and some conversation. No other restaurant in Cairo creates just this sort of atmosphere. Key to this, the music is brilliant and groovy, but not too loud, perfect for arguing a case, telling a story, or doing a little after-work flirting.
The service, for the most part, is professional. There’s sort of a time warp on that. If you go early, like around 8:00pm, and you’re the first ones there, the guys might be still setting up, or not yet fully in gear. Be patient. They’re really nice people. Have a glass of wine and relax. As things get rolling by around 10:00pm, the staff will be in fine form (Alchemy is open for lunch as well, but I have yet to make it there that early).
The food is grown up and groovy too. There are some unexpected dishes. Asparagus wrapped in beef bacon with blue cheese dip and sautéed green mussels with guacamole are available on the bar menu as appetizers. I tried a chicken leg stuffed with green banana and a caramel-glazed crispy skin. The skin could have been crisped up even a bit more, and needed a dash of sea salt to finish it off, but I liked the kitchen’s willingness to experiment. More conventional items I’ve tried have been the sea bass, crispy and tender in all the right places; the beef filet, cooked a perfect medium rare; the seafood linguine, al dente as it should be. Very solid cooking for the most part with plating that matches the artfulness of the room’s décor, playful, teasing, mysterious, hidden secrets.
There are three dessert choices at present: brie with a fig confit, a tiramisu (which is new), and a chocolate and chili fondant—which I order every time because it’s magic. The potions are equally intriguing (not to mention intoxicating). The last time I was there margaritas were being poured from table-top chemistry sets and I had a deconstructed B52 which consisted of tiny beakers of Bailey’s, Cuantro and Kahlua which had to be lined up and drunk one after the other in the proper order.
If you want a mellow time, go during the day or in the early evening, when Alchemy is still a restaurant. If you want something more lively and loungey, check their events page, and go after 10:00pm. Or, get there early, allow yourself to get sucked into the portal, and watch the king