This column is not ordinarily prone to hyperbole. It rarely finds the best, worst or most extraordinary of anything. Rather, I spend a lot of time tasting the pretty good, adequate or mildly disappointing. Therefore, when I meet extraordinary, I tend to get excited. Usually understated in my recommendations, if I claim something as extraordinary, you can take that recommendation to the bank.
And in Estoril, I’ve found something extraordinary. It’s not the overall ambience, though it’s pleasant. It’s not the overall quality of the food, though it’s good. It’s not the location, though I’m a big fan of this cluster of gloriously faded places around Talaat Harb that provide a glimpse on the swinging days of Cairo’s yesteryear.
No, the extraordinary thing about Estoril is the toumeyya. Toumeyya, a delectable fluffy white paste derived from toum, or garlic, is made by whisking together crushed garlic, oil and salt. It sounds easy, but decidedly it is not. I’m a toumeyya addict, and I’ve tried frequently to create it. Sometimes with lashings of luck I managed to get the consistency right. Never have I perfected its taste.
You may be thinking that an obscure side dish may be too small an achievement to pin a restaurant recommendation around. But you’d be wrong. Toumeyya can make or break a meat dish. Previously, my favorite toumeyya in town was found at Andrea of Maryutea, where their delicious homemade toumeyya goes exquisitely with their rotisserie chicken. With all due respect to wonderful Andrea, its toumeyya has lost its billing as Cairo’s best. A trip to Estoril is well deserved if only to sample this one dish. With a perfect fluffy texture, powerful without being overpowering, oozing garlic without pungency, spicy without being rancid, Estoril’s toumeyya is monumental accomplishment.
To be fair, there’s a lot to recommend Estoril beyond this one dish. The menu comprises a range of traditional mezzas and main courses. Of the typical array of mezza on offer, the salads, sojouk sausages, sambouseks of cheese and meat, hummous and moutabbel stand out. For the main course, it may come as no surprise, I’d recommend the dishes on which you can slather their triumphant toumeyya: kofta, chicken shwerma, mixed grill.
Estoril is the kind of glorious Cairo establishment that has stood the test of time. An anchor tenant of that glorious epicenter of downtown around Talaat Harb, Estoril is integrated into the fabric of its community. The waitstaff is professional, knows the menu well, and is on first name terms with many of the patrons. On any given night, Estoril is filled with a glorious cross-section of Cairo, from embassy staff to social activists to grumbling antiquated communists to chattering bawabeen. The décor is faded and unassuming. The Stella is always served cold.
When Cairo’s urban core is gloriously restored, we will look back on these anchor tenants, who kept the character of the place going in spite of the invasion of cheap clothing and shoe stores until we woke up with gratitude from our nightmare of suburban expansion. When we come to our senses and realize that we have been sitting all along on one of the world’s architectural treasures right in the middle of our city, then we will look back on places like Estoril, Café Riche, the Townhouse Gallery, the Greek and Italian clubs, the Windsor Hotel, among others, and thank our lucky stars that these guys persevered when everyone else had placed their bets on those dusty satellite cities and gated communities on Cairo’s outskirts.
There are places in Cairo with better food, classier décor, prompter service. But no one better reflects Cairo’s glorious downtown heritage, nor serves up more delicious toumeyya, than Estoril.
Details: 12 Talaat Harb St., Downtown. Tel: 2574-3102. Open daily from noon to midnight. Dinner for two: under LE200.