By Noha Mohammed Photos by Omar Mohsen
There was a time when Lebanese was the perennial favorite with Egyptian diners wanting to enjoy a classy meal — simply because it’s not too exotic and not really that far off from our own fare, except that it’s much more nicely presented. In recent years it’s been relatively overshadowed by incoming international cuisines, Asian in particular, followed by today’s revival of classic Egyptian cuisine. But the great Lebanese favorites out there look set to get a run for their money with the new opening of the Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski’s Bab Al Qasr restaurant.
This eclectic venue is not strictly Lebanese and offers a broader Levantine array of delights, with picks from Lebanon, Syria and even some flavors of Turkey. The mood is captured perfectly by the décor and furnishings which at first glance appear disparate but actually work very well together. A mixture of seating arrangements, colors and fabrics greet diners – the blues of the ceiling play off the Turkish-style painted floors and are carried by the bright drinking glasses gracing the table. Brick arches give the impression of secluded alcoves throughout the space and toward the back of the restaurant an elevated seating area with comfortable banquettes can accommodate larger parties.
My dining partner and I were greeted by very courteous waitstaff who led us to a small, intimate table in front of a small stage with wall-to-wall mural as a backdrop. As we perched on Ottoman-style slipper chairs done up in plush maroon velvet and long gold tassel trim, a waiter poured us shots of jallab, a traditional Lebanese drink made of carb and droplets of rosewater. As we sipped we chatted amicably with the restaurant manager who handpicked a selection of cold and hot mezzas and starters for us to sample.
Levantine food lends itself to sharing, but don’t over order as portions here are quite generous. Tried and true classics include hummus, tahina, fattoush and tabouleh (LE 40 each), but for the more adventurous there is taratour (LE 45), a delicious garlicky tahina with extra lemon juice, chopped parsley and vinegar, and kibbeh (LE 55) or habra nayeh (LE 60). The latter is a variation of kibbeh sans the cracked wheat. Bab Al Qasr also does a delicious mohammarra (LE 50), mashed red pepper blended with onions, ground walnuts and lemon juice. And for a texture out of this world sample the octopus salad (LE 45), which features delicate octopus rounds marinated in tangy lemon, coriander and olive oil.
For the main course we chose two items off the grill, but could easily have gone with just one. The mix grill platter (LE 225) arrived heaped with sizzling choice cuts of beef, chicken, kofta and cutlets. The meat was tender and juicy, the herbed chicken kebabs nicely spiced. A side of Oriental rice flecked with minced meat and infused with a sprinkle of cinnamon went along perfectly. If you’re ravenously hungry, go for the Bab Al Qasr Mix Grill, which in addition to the all the aforementioned meats piles on pigeon and quail.
But it was the mixed seafood platter (LE 230) that stole the show: a twist of zesty lemon was enough to bring out the fresh, mouthwatering flavor of the scallops, skewered jumbo shrimp and filleted calamari. You can choose between sayadeya (seafood) rice or fries as a side.
There was absolutely no way we could polish it all off, so we signaled to the waiter to clear the table. In a flash the manager was at our side. “Would you like the dessert," they asked graciously. Though we were too full we didn’t need much convincing to try out their signature sweet: more traditionally Egyptian than Levantine because of the added cream, it brought out the best of both worlds with a healthy heaping of pistachios buried under the caramelized golden surface. A taste of pure heaven.
Bab Al Qasr • Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski Cairo • First Settlement, New Cairo • Tel: 202 2389-9000. Open weekdays from 6PM- 1AM and weekends from 6PM- 2AM