A unique, funky, and (literally) underground restaurant with an eclectic clientele replaced by a clean-cut and formulaic chain with an American twist …does this sound like another tragedy of contemporary urbanization? Funky and local losing out to the inescapable forces of modernization? Think again; in this case, at least, this represents progress.
The new arrival in question is the Zamalek branch of Blackstone Bistro, whose first branch arrived to great fanfare in Maadi several months ago. The restaurant it replaced, in a cavernous cellar (not The Cellar mind you) next to the President Hotel, whose name I now can’t recall, was apparently so funky it never had any customers. Sometimes a little bit of standardization isn’t such a bad thing after all.
There’s a lot of this happening around Zamalek these days. This mini-renaissance is well-known. Wherever you look, the shabby and unimaginative stores and restaurants of yesterday are being replaced by the elegant and upmarket. Zamalek, it seems, is the anti-downtown. Upscale is in; unusually for Cairo, tacky shoe stores have a tough time staying in business.
Blackstone in Zamalek faithfully replicates the obviously successful model pioneered in its Maadi mother ship. Warm furnishings make the most of an otherwise unusually long, straight space; interesting, well-chosen photos from pastoral scenes line the walls; a real Pine Christmas tree accompanied by a pleasant Christmas track rings in the Christmas spirit; wooden beams transport you, at least in your imagination, away from concrete jungle of urban Cairo. The wait staff is efficient and well-trained.
This didn’t stop the most curious of Egyptian staff management practices from taking place during our visit. During an otherwise quiet brunch shift, the manager lined up his staff against the wall, and gave them a long speech and pep-talk, as if to signal how serious he was about staff training. I don’t know if I’m unique in finding this curious. Not only does it take staff away from their clients, it also gives the impression that staff have nothing better to do with their time than listen to management. If any restaurateurs are reading this column, I would urge you to keep your staff training behind the scenes.
Blackstone’s menu replicates an American bistro dining experience: excellent breakfasts, diverse sandwiches, salads, and other quick bites, a selection of classic main dishes, and enticing desserts. After a glorious brunch at Blackstone’s Maadi branch, which has already been reviewed by this column, at Blackstone in Zamalek we sampled off the lunch menu. We tried one of the “flatbreads,” an unusual pizza-like concept that could be very interesting, though ours was a bit dry, and a sumptuous “Italian Job” sandwich that was a delight, set on a bed of garlicy pesto. The kids were very content ordering off a decent kids menu, and the desserts were solid, in particular an apple pie and a moist chocolate cake. Like in Maadi, the Zamalek branch also provides a range of delicious homemade breads and pastries.
Open now for only a week, Blackstone is a welcome addition to Zamalek’s dining scene. Interestingly, it is next to another one of our favorite Zamalek haunts, Crave. As such, a mini-gourmet experience is developing along Taha Hussein Street, including Crave, Blackstone, Eurodeli and The Cellar, along with the new pub Amici. Normally, I prefer funky, local places to the cookie-cutter approach of a chain. In the case of Cairo, however, a bit of an upmarket influence, albeit a bit formulaic, is a welcome addition.
Details: Tel. 2735 5875; 22 Taha Hussein, Zamalek; open daily from 8am to midnight. Lunch for two: LE180.