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Photo credit: Kaylan Geiger/Egypt Today[/caption]
Recently opened Eish & Malh is serving up top-notch Italian cuisine and providing a new dining experience for Downtown Cairo residents and clientele
By Kaylan Geiger
With its tall church ceilings, large windows that open out onto Adly Street in front of one of Egypt’s few remaining synagogues and situated alongside the newly revamped Kodak Passageway, the recently opened restaurant Eish & Malh is reimagining space in Downtown Cairo.
Owners Dina Abouelsoud and Nadia Dropkin launched a soft opening of the restaurant in November 2014, hoping that the new venue would create a space for themselves and others in Downtown that would be something different, new and close to home.
“As residents of Downtown, Dina more than 20 years, me for more than six years, we don’t think there is a good variety of food Downtown,” says Dropkin. “It’s all Egyptian street food, and there are different levels of cuisine but it’s all really the same. When we were trying to create the menu we were thinking about how to do something different […] where we can have good coffee, good food, places where we would want to be.”
Eish & Malh is different, and its open space and atmosphere feel like an open door, and it has the food to match. Their Italian-themed menu is a treasure trove of pasta, pizza and comfort food. From the Focaccia Verde (LE 7) to the Mixed Bruschetta (LE 18), to the large assortment of Italian-style pizzas (LE 29-47) and Mediterranean lunch specials (LE 28-35), Eish & Malh’s menu is clearly well thought out.
“In terms of the food, we had many different thoughts,” explains Dropkin on why they settled on Italian cuisine. “We had wanted to do American southern cuisine or BBQ or Mediterranean.” By snatching up two chefs with an expertise in Italian cuisine, they decided to go ahead and make the investment.
But a name like Eish & Malh doesn’t exactly bring to mind the rolling hills of Italy. “We wanted something to be catchy and at the same time simple that goes with the concept of everything,” Abouelsoud explains. Abouelsoud and Dropkin were hoping that with a name like Eish & Malh, the restaurant wouldn’t typecast itself and its cuisine would appeal to a broad audience.
“A lot of people comment ‘why do you have Eish & Malh as the name if it is an Italian restaurant?’” says Dropkin. “If we had an Italian name it would be different in terms of interacting with the street. The establishments of Downtown have strong Egyptian names. We wanted to feed Downtown so this concept of Eish & Malh (bread and salt) just worked.”
Visitors who stop in to sample the cuisine don’t always know what they’re eating, but more often than not they’ve walked away smiling. “For me this is more exciting than serving to a foreigner or a Western-educated Egyptian who reads the English menu and not the Arabic menu,” says Dropkin. “It’s more exciting for us that these customers are excited about the food and the concept. That’s the success and it’s really exciting.”
The cuisine is more than a carbon copy of Italian food, and it’s clear that the kitchen looks beyond the confines of store-bought ingredients. “All of the pastas except for the penne are made in-house and the gnocchi is made fresh,” says Dropkin, who explains the menu is available in English and the Italian has been transliterated to Arabic. “The spinach and gnocchi is probably one of our most popular pasta dishes.”
The Gnocchi agli Spinaci is indeed worth the hype. The fresh house-made gnocchi served with sautéed arugula and mushrooms in a cream sauce with a touch of mint and Parmesan cheese (LE 42) is satisfying to the final bite, best described as dumplings of happiness, and as a green vegetable, spinach is a happy find in any dish served up in Cairo.
Eish & Malh isn’t Abouelsoud and Dropkin’s first attempt at creating spaces in Downtown Cairo. Abouelsoud opened Dina’s Hostel, which is currently closed while it relocates to a new space, and they opened Kafein, a coffee shop that serves up good coffee that doesn’t come from a Nescafe container, in March 2014.
“We’ve been living in Downtown for a long time,” says Aboulsoud. “There is a lot of change and actually we are part of this change too because what we want to do is create spaces: Dina’s Hostel, Kafein and now Eish & Malh, each one is different.”
While investment moves largely to Cairo’s suburbs and the eloquent neighborhoods of Zamalek and Maadi, new places in Downtown that offer what Eish & Malh is trying to serve aren’t as common. “There are a lot of companies in Downtown trying to change the area, make it more commercial and raise the prices but I think all of this is working in some way,” says Abouelsoud. “We are changing Downtown.”
The restaurant’s wallpaper offers a good analogy to what they mean by reimaging and changing Downtown. The restaurant was previously the venue for Downtown 34, and the black and white photographs on the walls depict the streets of Cairo in 1934, but Dropkin and Abouelsoud have added a twist. Flowers have been painted onto the trees along with colorful cartoons of abstract women flying through the city.
“The place was classical, traditional, it was very heavy,” says Dropkin. “We wanted to lighten it up. We think about it as reimagining Cairo on top of the old Cairo. Someone asked once ‘Why did you ruin the wallpaper?’ and I said ‘Look at the photograph of the woman flying upside down with her hair all out of control, isn’t this what we are like in Cairo?’”
Aside from just creating a new space for Downtown, the restaurant hopes to build a sense of community and add to the network that already exists between Dina’s Hostel and Kafein.
“But it’s really about a conscious effort to create spaces for people to be, eat and drink, all about quality service and the things that we find lacking,” says Abouelsoud. “Downtown doesn’t have the same kind of residents that other places have, it’s not the kind of residential area that it once was.”
There are a couple of ways Eish & Malh are accomplishing this. First, the restaurant will hold monthly supper clubs, which brings strangers together for a themed meal at a communal table to introduce them to new cuisines. The first supper club carried a provincial Tuscan food theme, going along with the restaurant’s Italian theme, and featured a multi-course meal.
“The most successful thing about the supper club is the social interaction between different people, and we are excited to continue that each month,” says Dropkin.
Apart from the supper club, Eish & Malh catered the opening of the Kodak Passageway, which was redeveloped by the urban planning organization CLUSTER and runs adjacent to the restaurant, in early January.
At Kafein, new art exhibits go up every six weeks and adorn the walls of the coffee shop. Dropkin and Abouelsoud hope to bring music events to Eish & Malh once they receive the proper permits.
The restaurant offers take away for local businesses and residents, and hopes to offer delivery soon, along with a full breakfast menu.
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