There’s something stirring inside the Gezira Club these days. The last time that this venerable old club was involved in such revolution was back in the waning days of King Farouk. There’s a great scene in the historical novel A Woman of Cairo(Paperback, 2006) in which the book’s author, old Egypt hand Noel Barber, reminisces about how Farouk would lounge around the Club, enjoying the pleasant evening breeze, and appropriating a vast swathe of prime seating in order to entertain his hedonistic friends and ogle elegant ladies.
Once again the club finds itself at the center of a revolution, albeit of a quieter, gentler variety. This revolution is all about Syrian food. What a pleasant surprise that the club, never famous for the delicacy of its food, should provide Cairo’s best Syrian cuisine. In spite of the close historical and political links between the two countries, quality Syrian food has traditionally been hard to find here, in the western half of what used to be known as the United Arab Republic.
With the opening of the Amar al-Sham sohour garden at the Gezira Club, first time gastro-entrepreneur Ashraf al-Shiaty has pulled off a veritable coup. Soon to open a restaurant of the same name, with the Syrian chefs and waiters for this enterprise already in place, Amar al-Sham, the sohour version, gives us a foretaste of what’s to come. Amar al-Sham, the restaurant, is set to open in the weeks following Ramadan on a boat next to the Sofitel in Zamalek.
I’m a dedicated fan of the Gezira Club, but Amar al-Sham gives the place another dimension. Set in a grassy enclave, Amar al-Sham has departed from standard issue club furniture by providing opulent modern white couches and low glass tables. Amar al-Sham started out quietly, but word quickly spread, and it is now one of the hottest reservations in town. If you come during peak hours, unless you happen to have good connections with management, you can expect a long wait.
But the quality of the food completely justifies any wait you might face. Meals like this make it plain just how many compromises we Cairo foodies make on a daily basis. Somehow we convince ourselves that our local offerings are good enough. Amar al-Sham puts everything in perspective. When al-Shiaty’s Syrian chefs arrived, he told them to wander around Cairo’s traditional areas to sample the local flavors. Expecting a taste challenge, they instead came away disappointed, wondering how Cairo palettes have sunk so low.
We visited Amar al-Sham with a sizeable group, and sampled the menu extensively. The chicken shwerma was a delight: moist, flavorful, served with biting toummeya. The falafel was head and shoulders above Egyptian taameya; lighter, crispier, less soaked in tired oil. Everything we tried was a sensory pleasure: gergir salad with tomatoes; eggplant fettah; betengane; sahlab served in cold in a bowl rather than hot in a glass in the Egyptian tradition. The quality was uniformly superb. My only complaint is that the bread, large flat loaves you might find in a store, did not do justice to the food. The experience would have been extraordinary with home-baked piping hot fresh baladi bread. Al-Shiaty assures us that a Syrian bread oven is on the way, and when he opens his restaurant, the bread will be every bit as spectacular as the food.
As if the quality of the food isn’t recommendation enough, the ambience and service are a delight. Fresh breezes on a pleasant mid-summer evening, comfortable seating, and impeccable service please the soul as well as the stomach. Egyptians aren’t famous for their restaurant service skills. Often clients are made to think that it’s our luck that the waiter is gracing us with his attention rather than the other way around. Not so at Amar al-Sham. Polite, discrete, but instantly available, I would advise any restaurateur to send their staff here for a training course.
Delightful ambience, superb food, great service. And this is just the warm-up act. Syrian food has traditionally been under-represented in Egypt, even though many would argue that it is the best food tradition in the region. With such quality in the opening act, I can’t wait to see what will become of the main event, the opening of a dedicated Amar el Sham restaurant near the Sofitel. We’ll keep you updated in this column.
Details: Open nightly for sohour during Ramadan, 8pm to 2am; Gezira Club, Zamalek, near the old squash courts. Entry available for non-members with guest ticket available at the door (LE30 for Egyptians, more for foreigners).