We sent our own fussy eater A. Abuzaid to review Kamala Restaurant and Bar at the Conrad Cairo to see what all the fuss was about.
As I begin to write this, I think to myself ‘How long do you have to live someplace before you can call it home?’ To this very day I find it easy to call the gorgeous mess that is South East Asia home. Having lived and travelled in the region for many years, I still get pangs of nostalgia for the time I spent there... the good times at least. Which were mostly spent exploring the region’s culinary prowess between pretending to go to college.
Now, as I live in culinary exile, when I hear about Asian food, my mouth waters and foodie-snob fangs come out.
Naturally when I had the chance to visit Kamala at the Conrad Cairo and write about the experience, I jumped on it without hesitation. And man am I glad I did.
Walking into the restaurant was akin to walking into a trendy Bangkok restaurant or bar. The mood was set just right. Beautiful wooden panels hung on the walls while underneath our feet the black floors seemed to stretch out the space, reaching a little pond dotted with floating lotuses. We were transported to a modern, chic Asia.
Upon a quick gaze on the menu, I had a moment similar to Leo DiCaprio’s at the end of The Beach when he was looking at a photo of his stint on that secret beach in Thailand. A flood of flavours washed over me. Good times were coming back. One by one, names like Sambal, Pho, and anything Goreng made interesting noises come out of me. To the point where it got uncomfortable for the puzzled waiter standing there. This wasn’t your typical Asian menu, Kamala know what they’re doing.
I jumped right in and ordered dishes from Japan, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and Thailand (skipped Singapore and they know why). I asked my new best friend Mustafa – who Kamala had trained in South East Asia – for a couple of my favourites like Thai Beef Salad, Sushi and Pho, then had him choose a couple of other dishes from different countries at his discretion. Don’t judge me for the 3ak, I was a man on a mission. To taste as much as possible from the restaurant’s pan-Asian menu. A ‘culinary journey’.
We started with a personal classic for me, Thai Beef Salad. While it is a simple little recipe, its simplicity is timeless. Like a Chanel suit. No not really, when I say timeless, I mean I could literally have it at any time: breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. Theirs was close to perfection too. Tangy, fresh and spicy flavours of cilantro, mint, and chilli complement the grilled prime beef fillet, while fish sauce and lime dress the whole dish beautifully with a wonderful, sour bang.
At this point it was getting serious between Mustafa and I. He’d just brought me Pho, a Vietnamese soup dish that is a true labour of love whenever it’s made. By that, I mean that it’s quite laborious to make and that I love it. Get this, they start by roasting ginger, onion, and spices imported from Asia to get a smoky flavour out of them. Then, and this seems to be their personal touch, they FRY them to bring out even more flavour before using them as a base for the meat broth that will cook for 6 whole hours. Not a typo: 6 whole hours. The result is a dark soup which tastes like nothing on God’s green Earth that’s poured onto a bowl of rice noodles, fresh greens and some of the most tender beef I’ve had. I couldn’t get enough, but my buddy came to the rescue with a sushi platter and sneakily took my bowl away. Was this turning into a love-hate thing with Mustafa?
If you live in Cairo and actually enjoy sushi, you know that it’s not easy to come by a good selection. Personally, I’m a massive Sashimi fan. I can report that I was not let down. My platter had 3 pieces of tuna Sashimi which I used to punctuate the platter: one in the beginning, the middle and one for the end. Highlights of the Sushi party on my table were definitely the shrimp tempura rolls and the caviar-crusted cheesy rolls. The former was like a dream since they were lightly fried, just enough to get a gentle crunch going but soft enough for me to still call a delightful cloud of prawns.
My next stop was Malaysia and Indonesia. If you enjoy spicy food, always order anything with the word Sambal in it; a sauce that mothers make best. I really wanted to see how authentic their version was. Usually you simmer down dried chillies with fresh bird’s eye chilli, salt, sugar, lime, and… shrimp paste – an acquired taste – this tangy (almost pungent) sauce a spicy-food-lover’s delight. Now, I don’t know what kind of mama they had up in that kitchen but that sauce was on point. With ingredients flown in from Thailand; sweet, salty and spicy all mixed into this sauce. I eventually started eating it by itself. But no one has to resort to that, instead Kamala’s chef has put a delicious modern twist to this otherwise traditional delight and put together a Sambal Salmon.
To me, that’s the embodiment of South East Asia: Embracing innovative modernity with a passion, while always revering tradition and knowing where you come from. Think of Kuala Lumpur where the world’s tallest twin towers, an innovative architectural wonder, oversee a village in the modern city centre where the mamas still rule supreme. And that’s what Kamala has done. Taking the authenticity of some of the most exciting dishes from Asia and embracing it, while innovating at every turn to bring their customers a truly Asian experience.