I do quite a bit of eating for my job and never have I come across a small independently run establishment in Cairo that can compete with the big boys running the hotel restaurants most popular with Cairenes. But a chance introduction to Cellar Door Bistro in Maadi has proven me wrong.
Ayman Ezzat is the man in the kitchen, cooking and supervising a team that has worked with him and his family for years. As a young man, he inherited the restaurant from his father and in an effort to revitalize the aging establishment once called Petit Swiss Chalet, a stint at culinary school in California was necessary. In San Francisco, food Mecca of the world, he studied and worked for some time, bringing back with him an almost whimsical approach to the culinary arts, enhancing the dining scene in Egypt.
Although it’s been open for three years, this was my first visit to Cellar Door Bistro. Softly lit, the tables are simply set up with comfortable couches and chairs. Candles on the table carry quirky quotes like “A man is like a butcher, he likes his woman full bodied and artwork hanging on the walls is for sale.
The Bistro s name was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien who once described the words “cellar door as having an especially beautiful sound that inspires other words and characters where a situation begins to grow. Likewise, Ezzat believes, food can be manipulated and fashioned to suit diverse tastes and reflect various experiences, all of which can be sensed in Ezzat’s choices on the menu.
Born to an Egyptian father and Tunisian mother, Ezzat is well-traveled and admits to being experimental with his food adventures. Displaying a mix of Asian and North African cuisine, Ezzat says that he likes to use the Mediterranean basin as a playground for his cooking.
With a plethora of intriguing choices, it was a fun exercise reading the menu aloud as we weighed our options. Fresh garlic bread was brought out with a Tunisian starter of char-grilled vegetables made into a tasty dip.
For appetizers, I started off with sea scallops with spring onions, ginger and honey (LE 45) which was soft and tangy, as hints of ginger subdued the sweetness of the honey. The New Zealand half shell mussels with diced tomatoes, peppers and herbs provençal (LE 37) swam in a flavorful sauce and both were perfect starters for our main dishes. Our vegetarian companion also had plenty to choose from, but she opted for typical Egyptian lentil soup (LE 15) which was extraordinarily good.
Ezzat explained that he always strives to create menus where standard fare is also available to accommodate a variety of tastes and moods, hence the beef stroganoff and Caesar salad.
Homemade gnocchi gorgonozola (LE 27) was served for us to share before our main entries, and surprisingly was not overly cheesy as is often the case outside Italy. On the subject of Italy, the menu further includes homemade ravioli, tortellini and papardelle.
Ezzat had recently returned from Thailand whose street food and Asian flavors inspired several new dishes. Spicy Thai shrimp with green curry (LE 75), and Indonesian coconut beef (LE 55) are two such additions.
I had a hard time deciding between the Moroccan style casbah chicken cooked in orange juice, cinnamon, cumin and brown sugar, served on a bed of raisin risotto (LE 55) or the duck. But finally I opted for the seared duck breast in red wine, apple vinegar, honey ginger and rosemary sauce with roasted garlic, mashed potatoes and wilted spinach (LE 65) – a choice I certainly didn’t regret.
The dressing on the spinach was a perfect blend of an almost nutty taste and spice and the duck was a glazed thick succulent slice, slightly crunchy and sprinkled with the same nutty sauce.
My friend had Australian lamb chops, a grilled rack of lamb with mint sauce, potato wedges and grilled vegetables (LE 70) which he was very content with, while our vegetarian dining partner, had the home made lasagna (LE 35) with roasted eggplant, zucchini and roasted peppers (also available in a classic meat ragout for carnivores).
So impressed with it, she kept inviting us to sample her dish as we were busy trying to go through our own sizable portions. A forkful proved the vegetables to be perfectly al dente, and judging by her enthusiasm, the ultimate pasta option.
Service is swift but perhaps too swift; for we were so thoroughly enjoying our dinner and conversation that we wouldn’t have minded lingering over each course or waiting a bit longer between courses.
A reasonable drinks menu includes some choice wines, and the barman was busy preparing Mojito cocktails that night.
Dessert is a must regardless of how full you might feel. The chocolate fondant (LE 32) is hands down the best in town. The white chocolate mousse cake is light in the best of ways and the chocolate and raspberry layered mousse is once again perfect (both LE 18).
Value for money? Yes. Well worth every pound spent.
“People say I charge them an arm and a leg but I tell them I only charge you an arm so you can come back to the restaurant with your legs, says Ezzat. And I would have to agree. This food stands out in a league of its own. Asking Ezzat to sit down with you is a treat. He is knowledgeable and passionate about food, about his diners’ experience and their feedback.
Cellar Door Bistro is the perfect place for a date or dinner with friends. Just plan on making it a long outing.
Cellar Door Bistro:No. 9 Road 151/100 El Horreya Square, Maadi, Cairo.A delivery menu is also available. Call: 2359-8328