Twinkling brightly on the bustling 26th of July thoroughfare in Zamalek is a new restaurant called Zooba. Zooba is a traditional Egyptian female name and though the restaurant sign is bright neon letters in funky font, the inside decor is a modern twist on Egyptain traditional style. Potted plants, herbs and fruit trees adorn the sidewalk outside Zooba. The floors are tiled with old stone tiles and the front door is a beautiful specimen of old Egyptian architecture. Some of the walls are unfinished, one with red brick one plain cement giving the feel of a warm and bustling kitchen, with a long metal table in the middle at which everyone congregates.
"Pass the napkins!" or "Pass the sugar!" is the only way you'll get those items. You sit close to the other customers and almost bump elbows, bringing back a little community spirit in the busy metropolis. When the table is full, the waiters clear room on the shelves and counters for customers to stand and eat, making it seem even more like a kitchen.
Mint is planted at the end of the table, in the table, for your tea. Should you order mint tea you are instructed to pick the mint and put it in your tea. I have to wonder what will happen when the customers have picked all the mint leaves off the little mint plant. But I must say, it is delightful eating dinner at a table next to a mint plant.
The restaurant is a cafeteria style. By the door are a stack of wicker baskets to be used as shopping baskets. A fridge is full of a variety of jars of dips, cheeses, juices and salads. Some of them are quite interesting, including mango rosemary juice which is refreshing, not too sweet, and with a very slight (almost too slight) taste of rosemary; lentil salad with white cheese; and hummus with coriander and parsley, an interesting green color but a rather uninteresting taste. On the right is a counter with a grill for sweet potatoes, or more correctly called "batata." There are no less than seven dips. I won't ruin the excitement by listing them all, but some of them are quite interesting, including karkade as well as date paste. If you ask the waiter which one is his favorite, he will tell you, with a twinkle in his eyes, that it is the marshmallow.
Next to the batata is a metal bucket of lentil soup over a fire. Similar buckets serve as bathroom sinks upstairs. Next to the soup bucket is a large bowl of koshary propped up on four red bricks with a bunsen burner underneath.
The bread is made in the happy colors of red and green, as well as the normal bread color. They say the red bread is made with beetroot and the green is made with spinach, though no trace of the taste of either is evident and the bright color is looks eerily like food coloring.
Dessert is lovely little molasses sticks wrapped in colored paper. All these things, including the bread, go in their beautiful packaging, and into your wicker basket. You can also choose jars of pickles near the counter. There you can order your hot food in either sandwich or container form. Once your hot food is ready, they bring it to you on a metal tray or plate, wrapped in paper.
The menu boasted some interesting combinations and inventions and is written on what looks like a page of an Arabic calendar or notebook paper. The menu includes little symbols that indicate food that is dairy, vegetarian, spicy or contains peanuts, something you don't see very often on menus in Egypt.
Unfortunately, the food itself does not match the expectations that the spectacular concept of the place suggests. The fuul sandwich is a fuul sandwich, it is rather bland and lacks any excitement. The french fries sandwich, one of the crown jewels of Egypt's street food, is extremely disappointing. It is made with labna and not tahina or fresh salad (though it says on the menu that it is served with oriental salad), those two ingredients being the keys to making a Egyptian french fry sandwich so phenomenally delicious. The koshary was not hot (despite the bunsen burner) and was a bit soggy and tasteless. The lentil soup was decent, but nothing out of the ordinary.
The one dish that I did enjoy was the spicy peppers taamia, a Zooba invention. The taamia was delivered with a punch of peppers, tahina, and fresh salad, a good combination of tastes. I would even be as bold as to say that this taamia sandwich beats Felfela's winner of a taamia sandwich. The spiced sausages were also surprisingly bland, considering how flavorful Egyptian sausage is normally. We finished our meal with the molasses sticks, which were delightful. For some reason, unwrapping them from that pretty paper made them taste better. They were not too sweet and not sticky at all, a nice ending to the meal.
The prices are reasonable, considering you are paying for the atmosphere, the service and the hygiene as well as the food. The sandwiches range from about LE5 – 14 and the containers range from about LE14 – 28.
Even though Zooba is designed to be a self-serve restaurant, the service there is impeccable. The waiters are helpful, cheerful and informed. Zooba is very serious about their hygiene. When customers walk into the restaurant and ask what is this all about the first thing they are told is, "This is Egyptian food that won't hurt your belly." All the waiters and servers that are dealing with food wear gloves, not a common sight in Egyptian restaurants. The chef informed me that the batch of koshary is changed every three hours, the salads are made fresh every day, the juices and bean salads every three, the dips every five and so on. The dips have little stickers on their containers indicating their expiration date. However, the one I purchased had expired the day before.
All in all, Zooba is a fun place to visit. Perfect for tourists who want a real taste of Egypt, though the taste may not be as delicious as what they may find in the alleyways, it will definitely be a less risky choice. Zooba is not only about the food, it is about the experience. A customer will experience more than just the tastes of traditional Egypt, but also the colors, the hospitality, the architecture and the art, with a funky modern twist that is hard to forget.
What I remember most about Zooba is the humor. The brightly colored bread made me smile, the mint planted in the table made me smile, the marshmallows on the batata made me smile. Even the word Zooba makes me smile. Say three times fast, see if you smile. Zooba zooba zooba!