For years, the Nile Hilton graced the corniche and stood conspicuously in the heart of downtown Cairo. Renamed The Nile Hotel, it has been under the watchful managerial eye of the Ritz-Carlton since the company’s take over in January.
The hotel will close operations by the end of the year to undergo drastic renovations over a projected two years. Upon completion, it will debut as the Nile Ritz-Carlton.
In the meantime, Cairenes are bidding adieu to the hotel, reliving nostalgic memories in the lobby and various dining outlets which have colored downtown Cairo for over 50 years. The hotel was a center for family get-togethers, political gatherings and some of Cairo’s most talked about weddings.
The passionate staff at the hotel’s various outlets is busy updating, or altogether changing, menus and offerings. And for one more week, Ibis Café on the ground floor is hosting a Lebanese feast.
Chef Nidal Daw, who has over 12 years of industry experience in the Middle East, has created a sumptuous buffet. It seems a veritable steal that for only LE 95++ guest are invited to savor the most delectable of mezzas, main dishes and oriental sweets all prepared by the Lebanese Chef Nidal, who speaks with equal enthusiasm about life, food and spices.
Starting off with salads, I heaped fatoush onto my plate, a green salad with crispy fried pita bread squares garnished with sumac, a surprisingly acidic spice that is pungent in smell and flavorful in taste.
Labneh, pickles, baba ghanoug and various bean-based salads were also sampled and enjoyed, all drizzled with olive oil.
My favorites though were a spicy walnut-based dip called mujaddareh, hard to find in Egypt and perfected by Chef Nidal, perfect for pairing with lamb or beef dishes. Makdous, or baby aubergines pickled with garlic and herbs, have a nice tang and again complement the café’s main dishes.
Not only is Lebanese food flavorful, incorporating a great variety of spices, the end result is also light on the stomach. There’s something so similar to the French Paradox: the French eat foods that are rich and heavy yet never yielding the same fat content as other cuisines. The reason? A lot of French food is cooked with easily soluble fats, such as duck fat, that can be used in small quantities and still deliver intense flavor.
The Lebanese cook with small amounts of lamb fat as opposed to ghee, explained Chef Nidal, allowing it to melt over a dish for a subtle flavor, yet never resulting in that taste of animal fat that is part and parcel of Egyptian lamb dish.
Also, Lebanese cuisine incorporates a lot of lean meat cuts from veal and beef, allowing dishes such as shawerma to be good for the palette and the waistline.
Shawerma rotates slowly in the restaurant, and Chef Nidal makes little sandwiches and brings them to your table. Proud of his country’s cuisine, he constantly seeks innovative ways to make it more appealing to western patrons.
Talking about his experience in Dubai working for some of the biggest names in the industry, he explains his personal attitude to cooking: “In Dubai, you have people from almost every nation in the world, and from that you get inspired and learn from them. Also working in such fine hotels had me reconsider how food is served and shared in Arab countries.
Fusing the notion of fine dining with Lebanese cuisine, Chef Nidal creates delicate looking plates, emphasizing the notion of a multiple course meal with breaks to share, talk and laugh in between. His agreeable nature had me lingering over each course as he shared recipes and secret tips.
Lamb with vegetables, kobebeh (grilled meat with copious amounts of cracked wheat and spices) cooked with vegetables or swimming in a yoghurt based sauce sit next to grilled chicken and oriental-style barbequed ribs. I highly recommend his hammour fish dish. A fish that comes from the waters of the Arabian Gulf, hammour is a white meat fish that is thick and juicy and Chef Nidal cooks it to perfection.
For dessert, various fingers of delicate puff pastry enclosing thick clotted cream are on offer, and Zeinab’s Fingers, deep fried fingers of dough drizzled with sugar syrup.
A Lebanese dinner at Ibis will allow you to reminisce with friends and create perhaps one last memory before history turns a page and moves forward to a new beginning.
The Lebanese promotion runs until July 31 at Ibis Café, ground floor, The Nile Hotel, Tel: 2578 0444.