One doesn't take culinary holidays in Egypt. When Ruth and I decided to go there on our honeymoon we obviously had something else in mind besides eating in fancy restaurants and drinking good wine (my few Egyptian friends even warned me about the wine, and suggested that I bring my own). However, being who we are, Ruth and I decided to explore the dining scene whenever we were someplace that wasn't the middle of the desert or a little village on the Nile.
With the exception of Alexandria, we visited all the major cities in Egypt and ate at the best fine and casual restaurants in each (judged to be good by Egyptian friends, who sent us with a list of places to try, and by guidebooks and local recommendation). It is with some (but not complete) confidence, then, that I say that Sabaya is the best restaurant in Cairo, and quite possibly the entire country. And not just by a hairsbreadth. From the décor to the ingredients to the menu, this restaurant stood head and shoulders above everywhere else we ate on our tour through Egypt, and it is the only restaurant that I would say cannot be missed in a trip to that country, which, on the whole, offers few good dining experiences.
Sabaya is located on the mezzanine level of the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Cairo, which is on the Nile a couple of blocks from the Egyptian Museum. The Mezzanine is a quiet balcony overlooking the lobby, where in the evenings light piano jazz floats up over the railing towards the two fine dining establishments in the hotel, one of which is a beautifully designed but unremarkable Thai restaurant, and the other of which is Sabaya.
You enter the restaurant through a set of latticed wooden doors into the main dining room which sweeps around in an arc, at the center of which is a wide column inset with niches for objects d'art and ringed at the top with curved blades of glass lit with halogen lighting. The lighting, judiciously placed halogen spots and indirect floods hidden behind dark wooden panels and wall partitions creates a mood that hovers between sophisticated and romantic. If you have spent time visiting the many mosques of Cairo, especially those done in a Turkish style, you will recognize the décor as a modern riff on classic Moorish design. The gorgeous red limestone tile floor is inset with small gold mosaic tiles which crisscross the room at 45 degree angles to the tiles. Light cream colored stucco walls and peaked archways separate the room into sections, and the hanging drapery in subdued beiges, greens, and browns interrupts regular patterns established by sections of wood and iron latticework partitions that feature the classic Islamic eight pointed star.
The tables are set for fine dining, with excellent linens (unremarkable elsewhere, but rare in Egypt) and the staff, who all speak excellent English, wear tuxedos (for the men) or beautifully embroidered burgundy and gold galabiyas (for the women " who are scarce).
You will be quickly led to your candle-lit table by one of the staff, and if the restaurant isn't busy, it will most likely be one of their bigger tables -- even if you are a party of two -- and for this you should be thankful. You're gonna need the space.
You will be handed bi-lingual menus in Arabic and English and seconds later a ten inch diameter globular glass vase will be placed on your table that is overflowing with fresh raw vegetables: nearly half a head each of romaine and green leaf lettuce, whole small cucumbers and bell peppers, carrots, mint, and more. This bouquet looks like a small piece of art or advertising that might be constructed by the bored staff of a vegetable market, and after a day spent in the dust and grime of a poor city of 17 million, it seems like paradise. One evening this was also accompanied by a small bowl of pickles, hot peppers, lightly brined kumquats and radishes and carrots. So nibble away as you peruse the menu.
Sabaya seems to be firmly Lebanese in its cooking, and the menu is structured around a traditional selection of dozens of mezze, or small plates designed for sharing, and then larger main courses to follow. Yet look closely, and every once in a while a little bit of French influence surfaces, whether it's the herbs on a particular dish or the option of a plate of frog's legs in amidst the roast eggplant and spiced lamb. To those familiar with what is generically referred to as "Mediterranean" cuisine in the United States many of the items on the menu will be familiar, some even bearing similar names like tabouleh and hummous, while others are completely new. The menu does a fine job explaining a bit about each of the dishes on offer and their ingredients, and the staff is more than happy to offer more details and recommendations.
The restaurant also offers a 10 course chef's tasting menu which combines several of the mezze and a few of the main dishes, but both of the times we went there we opted for what seems to be the local approach: order a lot of stuff and graze until you burst. Locals seem to be able to pack a lot more away than we were able to. Generally we ended up having the stamina for about 3 to 4 mezze each and then maybe being able to share one of the main entrees. But if you're going to err in one direction or another, the magic of this place is definitely in the small plates.
By far the best start to the meal will be an order of their green apple tabbouleh. The combination of green apples with the traditional Middle Eastern salad of mint, parsley, and bulghar wheat would never have occurred to me, but doesn't it just seem like a good idea? Dripping with fresh lemon juice, this salad, which we learned to eat the "traditional" way by scooping it up with the crisp green lettuce leaves from our glass bowl, was one of the most refreshing palate electrifying things I've eaten in quite some time. It burst with flavor and immediately made me ravenous for more.
Also not to be missed is the raheb salad, a roasted eggplant puree mixed with diced tomatos, celery, and onions which takes the perhaps more familiar flavors of babba ghanough and cranks them up a notch. Spread over the fresh, handmade, piping hot pita bread that continue to arrive throughout the meal, I could have eaten this every day throughout our trip and never tired of it. I could only think about how my vegetarian friends in California would have been in convulsions of ecstasy as they licked the beautiful gold rimmed glass bowl clean.
If you're more adventurous, I also suggest trying one of the kebbeh nayeh, a concoction of lamb tartar paste mixed with cracked wheat that should be eaten in pita with leaves of fresh mint and bits of onion. We opted for the kebbeh nayeh ourfali, which brings some slow burn to the buttery cool flavors with the addition of red chili paste mixed in.
Our other favorites include the restaurants signature chicken mousakhana, freshly made bread pastries stuffed with stewed chicken, onions, shallots, and sumac, a less common spice here in North America, but one which adds a lemony tang to many dishes in the Middle East, Persia, and Afghanistan; sambousik with meat, which are deep fried raviolis filled with lamb meat or cheese; and the frogs legs Provencal, which should only be ordered by a party of 4 or by someone who's ready to chow through nearly 20 frogs legs on their own.
Entrees include items like grilled lamb chops with fresh roasted vegetables (delicious, if a little overdone, when we had them) or whole grilled fish, and a variety of rice dishes and traditional middle eastern stews and tagines.
Dishes tend to be served family style and in the order that they are requested, and they'll stay on the table until you ask them to be removed or until every last scrap is picked off of them " which is why you want a big table, since you're gonna have about 10 plates shuffling around like puzzle pieces by the time everything comes out.
The presentation of the dishes is given a surprising amount of care, more than just about any restaurant we ate at in Egypt, though they're far from the sculptural or visually arresting you might expect in a high end restaurant in the U.S. I totally fell in love with one of their main pieces of serving ware: small water-clear glass bowls that were miraculously cracked in a lattice pattern like the crackle glazes applied to some Asian ceramics, and then rimmed with an understated strip of metallic gold. They were delicate and gorgeous and I still covet them.
The restaurant's wine list has all the usual Egyptian suspects, and would be a dismal (and expensive) failure if not for the addition of a few Lebanese wines which while not phenomenal, are at least good. In particular I would pay attention to the pink ones, which pair beautifully with most of the flavors on offer.
After dinner, one of the staff (who deliver very good to excellent service) might suggest that you consider taking your dessert in the lounge, which may be a welcome respite if your belly is as full as mine was at then end of our meals. The lounge is a beautiful candle lit sitting room, with multi-colored plump couches overflowing with silk pillows and low stools " just the sort of place for smoking (if you care for that sort of thing) and having a drink to unwind the evening. It's also a perfect place to tuck into a bowl of fresh mohalabieh, an addictively delicious Lebanese rice milk pudding that if made fresh (at one of our meals it was clearly just out of the pot) tastes like moonlight made dense and sweet.
Chef Levant Makhoul and the folks at the Intercontinental in Cairo have created quite a gem, and one that I hope is rewarded and recognized. It's a difficult proposition, both because the cost of the meal, while cheap by western standards, is high enough to prevent many locals from enjoying it, and because many Egyptians rarely seem to go out for dinner anyway (perhaps because of economic reasons as well as cultural). So if you get the chance, stop by. You'll be doing them some good and you will experience one of the best meals it's possible to get in Egypt.
How Much?: About $40 US per person, Lebanese wines run $50 - $150 US.
Semiramis InterContinental Cairo
Corniche El Nil
P.O. Box 60, 11511
Open from 1PM to 2AM every day. Major credit cards accepted.
No dress code beyond the slightly relaxed Islamic cultural standards (no shorts or tank tops) that you'll find in hotels, but it is a fancy restaurant for Cairo, so you'll feel self conscious in jeans and a sweaty t-shirt. The hotel has valet parking if you have a car.
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