A new vegan restaurant shakes up Cairo’s dining scene
By Campbell MacDiarmid
photography courtesy The Vegan Kitchen
Full disclosure: I’m an omnivore. Not that this necessarily disqualifies me from reviewing a vegan restaurant but I should probably lay my cards on the table. I don’t have anything against vegan food – having traveled in India, it was easy to go weeks at a time without eating meat – but I review it by the same criteria as any other meal. Some enthuse about the long-term health benefits of a vegan diet while others point out (quite rightly) that a vegan diet is far less resource-intensive than one rich in meat and dairy. For our own well-being and for the sustainability of our planet we could probably all benefit from consuming more fresh fruit and vegetables, but when I go to a restaurant for dinner I’m more interested in how the food looks on the plate, how it tastes and whether it leaves me satisfied. The Vegan Kitchen succeeds in all three.
A flowering archway and handpainted sign welcome diners into a courtyard garden on a quiet street in Maadi. Inside, the restaurant’s former incarnation as a garage is all but undetectable under terracotta tiles and earthy plaster. A glass vestibule adds light and airiness to the small space. Egyptian couple Yasmine Nazmy and Alaa Sharshar brought their holistic approach to life to the restaurant, applying it to everything from the food to the furniture. The restaurant’s theme of sustainability touches the decor, with furniture made from recycled wooden shipping pallets and the glasses from cut-down beer bottles. As well as being vegan, the food is also organic and gluten free, with the kitchen eschewing processed products like refined sugar, and many of the dishes are uncooked. Judging from comments by the Vegan Kitchen’s nearly 4,000 Facebook fans, many love the concept and are happy to support it before even trying the food. Apparently a vegan restaurant is overdue in Cairo.
The menu offers a manageable slew of starters, salads, soups and more substantial mains, with sweets to complete the meal. Service was attentive but casual, with owner Alaa happy to chat with my vegan dining partner about cleansing diets between waiting other tables. Although we came early for dinner, we were not the first and customers continued arriving throughout our meal.
For starters we ordered guacamole and a dish of tomato slices topped with pesto, tahina and olive tapenade. The tomato trio was visually striking, resembling a modernist painting, while the oat cakes accompanying the guacamole had a pleasing crunch.
Despite reservations about the unusual-sounding flavor combination, the curry salad was the evening’s standout dish, a delectable pile of arugula, shredded carrot, raisins and walnuts anointed with a ginger and fenugreek-infused oil. The sweet mushroom salad also surprised the tastebuds, with a well-balanced orange and pomegranate dressing complementing thin sliced button mushrooms and salad greens.
For the main dish I ordered a marinated tofu fillet while my companion chose what was called raw pasta with pesto. A mushroom gravy and several spoons of sweet potato mash accompanied the grilled tofu. The sauce added plenty of umami flavor to the meaty tofu, but the sweet potato was underwhelming. The raw pasta was a mound of shaved courgette spirals topped with verdant green pesto made with cashews in lieu of parmesan cheese. My friend delighted in this fun, fresh dish.
We finished our meal with chocolate brownie, tiramisu and barley coffee. The brownie’s texture was unexpectedly soft and it came topped with a slightly gritty cashew cream but overall it was an enjoyable dessert. Tiramisu was always going to be a difficult dish to replicate without eggs, mascarpone, coffee or ladyfinger sponge biscuits. What arrived was an interesting concoction of nuts and pureed dates. While nice enough on its own, calling it tiramisu was a stretch and it might be better renamed. The barley coffee was a passable caffeine-free substitute for the real thing and came with almond milk and date paste for sweetener.
The Vegan Kitchen did well when it presented bold dishes with well-balanced flavor combinations that allowed the fresh ingredients to shine. It faltered slightly when it attempted to replicate non-vegan recipes from a limited palette. While these dishes were admirably ambitious and perhaps a hat tip towards diners seeking familiarity in a novel dining concept, I believe vegan food should stand on its own terms and not as a second rate (but guilt free) substitute for meat and dairy. The results of such experiments are bound to be ersatz and disappointing. Too often though fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, cereals and pulses play background roles in our meals. The creative owners of The Vegan Kitchen do an excellent job of offering them centre stage, often in innovative and exciting roles. Even an incorrigible omnivore like myself left satisfied. et
The Vegan Kitchen ∙ 10 Rd. 256, Maadi ∙ Open noon until midnight, last order at 11pm ∙ closed Sundays