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Bite Me Cairo: A neighbourhood unto itself

David Blanks discovers Fairmont Heliopolis hotel

Foodist at work. (Photo by Nada Badawi)
Foodist at work. (Photo by Nada Badawi)

At the beginning of the revolution, although I lived but a five-minute walk from the Fairmont Heliopolis, I rarely went there. In fact I do not think I ever went there, preferring the clubs and restaurants of Zamalek to those nearby. Then came 28 January 2011, and with the new curfew it became much more difficult to get around.

We still went to Zamalek and other places Downtown, but the army made it such a hassle to drive back to Heliopolis at night that we started looking closer to home, and the Fairmont was the obvious choice. We could get there on foot and there were no checkpoints.

We discovered a warm, welcoming fine-dining scene that offered as many quality restaurants as Downtown and one that was beginning to fill up with like-minded souls confined to quarters in Heliopolis.

The Fairmont had—and still has—a bit of everything, and as long as you pay attention to the comings and goings of the various chefs and the lifelines of the various establishments, you can eat well seven nights a week and never have the same meal twice.

My first discovery was Maria’s, a revolution revelation. It opened in January 2011 and Chef Victor and his crew were as baffled as to how to deal with events as were his, at the time, precious few customers. But the guy could cook. Trained in Acapulco and Chicago, he produced the best Mexican food I had had anywhere in the world.

Still to this day the freshly prepared guacamole and salsa are amazing and the rest of the menu if not best in the world—for Victor has moved on—still by far the best in the region. I loved it, especially the ceviche, and was a loyal customer for many months.

But this is what I meant by paying attention to the comings and goings of the chefs and the overall trajectories of these various restaurants: as Zamalek, the Fairmont Heliopolis is its own little restaurant zone and in order to know where to dine you have to somehow pay attention to what’s hot and what’s not and that’s not always easy.

Right now the Thai restaurant at the Fairmont is hot. Lan Tania too has gone through its share of personnel changes, but they have maintained their standards with a selection of creative salad dishes including my favourite, Yum Nuea Yeang, which is grilled strip loin, onion, cucumber and tomato with a chili Thai dressing; a dozen authentic red, green and yellow curries; various noodle and rice dishes; and mains such as grilled duck with rice vermicelli, lemongrass and a tamarind sauce and a steamed sea bass, both of which will cater to those who shy away from spicy.

I do not much care for the Lebanese restaurant, nor for the café that thinks it’s a restaurant called Le Marché; the idea of a French patisserie with a steak corner does not work. Between the two is Leonardo, the more casual of the Fairmont’s two Italian restaurants. It is the one with a brick pizza oven that is being handled by someone who knows what he is doing.

The best pizzas in Heliopolis for sure, a little pricey perhaps, but these are hotel standards, and if you want to eat somewhere that has the purchasing power to pull in ingredients and talent from across the globe, then you will have to pay for the privilege.

The Indian restaurant Raj seems to be working well although I have not yet tried it, and I have heard good things about the new Saki Sushi Lounge with its gorgeous location in the atrium. Across from it is the up-market Italian Aqua E Luce. My only caution here is that they often do buffet specials and, while certainly professional, I prefer to order from the à la carte menu and watch the chefs prepare my meal in the large, open kitchen. Again, these are five-star prices and Aqua E Luce is probably best for a special occasion, bit in my estimation it is worth it.

What prompted these musings? An invitation from friends recently to join them for shisha by the pool and the chance discovery of an amazing Cobb Salad with beef bacon, perfectly grilled chicken, rocket, and an imported blue cheese. I must say that compared to the attentive service everywhere else in the hotel, the guys outside were asleep and that needs to be fixed, but this was a comfortable, friendly shisha place where you can have a glass of wine and a nice meal as well.

All in all the restaurants, cafes and bars at the Fairmont Heliopolis—and there are others—are less well known than they should be, and the best of them are well worth the trip even if you are coming all the way from Zamalek.

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