Cairo’s foodies can be notoriously fickle. Tastes and fads change, and today’s Tamarai can become tomorrow’s Justine—sad, neglected, and unloved—in a heartbeat. The latest trends within the hallowed chambers of Cairo’s fine-dining establishment seem to come and go with impressive alacrity. Only the savviest of Cairo’s restaurateurs know how to ride this wave and continue to provide sought after meals, every day, year in and year out.
The track record of Zamalek’s La Bodega in this regard is impressive. Lacking significant advertising, nor the slightest sign from the street announcing its existence, it nevertheless remains popular nightly with a lively mix of locals and expats. La Bodega takes up two massive adjoining old-style Zamalek apartments, with high ceilings and ornamentation from a bygone era. Two different dining experiences are on offer: on one side is standard bistro fare alongside an antique bar. Nothing is new here; chances are many of you are familiar with it. The other side has recently undergone a complete renovation, and has emerged in its most recent incarnation as Aperitivo, a fresh remake on a traditional Italian bistro concept. With Aperitivo, La Bodega’s managers appear to have shown that they still have their fingers on the pulse of what it takes to create popular dining destinations in Cairo.
Aperitivo hearkens back to the “golden age” of European-style bistro dining experiences, drawing inspiration from authentic classic recipes that have stood the test of time. The décor is funky but classic, massive groovy chandeliers that would make Austin Powers proud, deep red leather couches in tucked away corners that look at the same time avant-garde and decidedly retro, and monumental wall décor that almost feels upholstered.
Opening the menu, the first thing you notice is the impressive list of cocktails (Mumm Cordon Rouge champagne anyone, at the bargain price of LE1800 a bottle?). Next door, in a bar area loosely attached to Aperitivo, La Bodega’s management is trying to make something similar to the American concept of Happy Hour happen. By all accounts, it’s a difficult concept to sell in Cairo, for it flies against the more customary local habit of taking a pre-dinner snooze), but their efforts should be applauded nonetheless, and even if happy hour’s a bit dead, the place is jumping by midnight.
As always at La Bodega, the service is crisp, efficient and attentive, and the well-trained waitstaff are available, without appearing to hover. An imported Italian chef is overseeing the kitchen, and for now the results are pleasing. The menu has an Italian feel, and we started with a tuna tartar, topped with onions andsundried tomatoes that was excellent, and seared scallops served over spinach that were moist and tasty.
Feeling ambitious, not to mention carnivorous, we passed right over the extensive list of lighter pastas, and headed straight for the list of magnificent mains: sea-salt crusted sea bass and ossubuco. The salt crusted sea bass was a treat, an unusual preparation, excellently managed, and the ossubuco was classic; good, if unexceptional. A neighbor with trusted taste buds sampled the Zuppa de Pesce alla Ligure, and Italian style fish and shellfish stew, and pronounced it superb.
For dessert, we remained classic, trying out the tiramisu (excellent) and the chocolate volcano (a bit dry, in spite of its name), an insufficiency that was well compensated by the excellent home made ice cream that came along with it.
I have often argued in these pages that Cairo has a plethora of quality dining options that are “best in class,” though perhaps not traditional recipients of praise from the gastro-set. Andrea Mariuteah, and Abu Tareq Koshary, for example, are each superb in what they do, even though neither would likely rate highly if the folks from Michelin decided to start producing a Cairo dining guide.
Where Cairo has traditionally failed to keep up, however, has been in the area of quality, innovative, fine-dining options that can stand the test of time. This, thankfully, is starting to change. Aperitivo finds itself in distinguished company, perhaps including Dokki’s Au Petit Bistro, Le Pacha’s Maharani, and Zamalek’s Trattoria. As such, it’s a welcome addition to an ever-expanding plethora of quality dining options.
Details: Baehler’s Mansions, 157 26th July St., Zamalek; Open 6pm-1am every day, 02 2735 0543. Dinner for two: Around 400LE.