Cairo’s Take on High Tea
High tea [hahy ‘ tee]
Noun | British
A fairly substantial late afternoon or early evening meal similar to a light supper, at which tea is served.
Located on the side street next to the back entrance of Zamalek’s Marriott Hotel (just off of the 26th of July corridor) lies a an ornately decorated place I had never heard of before. Touted as an elegant café/brasserie, Ahwak – Salon de Thé served as the meeting point for a quick outing with friends and turned out to be a fitting place to discuss all things superficial, intellectual, social and political.
As you come off the street you walk through a narrow corridor filled with shrubs and greenery and climb a small set of stairs to access the front door. As with most places in Cairo (thankfully) the entrance doesn’t do justice to what you find once you’re inside. Entering Ahwak – Salon de Thé is akin to stepping into an entirely different city, if not time. Wonderfully high ceilings create a beautiful open space that boasts sumptuous columns, elaborate paneling and molding and robust chandeliers that hang overhead.
Once you take a few moments to settle in you realize that the true beauty of Salon de Thé is in the details. Whether it’s the frou-frou lace curtains, floor to ceiling mirrors or eclectic art that hangs on the walls, sinking into your chair is an immediately gratifying experience. The noise, stress and frustrations from the outer world (read: traffic, pollution + unwanted attention) abate almost immediately.
It’s a place popular with expats, as well as Egypt’s young jet-set crowed. Tables of 16 – 25 years olds were everywhere and they leaned lazily in towards each other as they smoked shisha, nibbled on mezze and chatted the night away. Aside from mezze, the café serves wraps and sandwiches, salads, a soup of the day and a few meat-heavy mains like pepper steak, veal and shrimp in curry sauce. Slightly hungry we veered towards the mezze, wanting to try a bit of everything, and settled on stuffed grape leaves, shrimp salad, tameyya (falafel), baba ganoush and grilled vegetables. We were hoping to get our hands on a glass of wine, but Salon de Thé doesn’t serve alcohol…perhaps the only drawback to the evening. Instead we stuck to water and mused over the extensive list of tea and coffee, pondering what we’d have following the cavalcade of food.
The servers, while courteous, have a limited grasp of English so if your handle on Arabic is shwaya shwaya (a little bit) communication might be tricky. Have no fear though as their patience is commendable and hand signs/miming goes a long way. The food came out swiftly, it was presented nicely and in terms of taste…enjoyable. Not taking into consideration the food I’ve eaten at the homes of friends and colleagues, it was some of the best mezze I’ve had yet in Cairo.
I put all my focus into the falafel, grilled vegetables – that came with a drizzle of olive oil and were so succulent I nearly cried – and grape leaves, all of which were top notch andIntolerant friendly. If you prefer to steer clear of fried food then the falafel isn’t your best bet, instead put all your efforts into dips like hummus and fool (bread – for dipping and gathering – was provided for the gluten lovers at the table) and grilled/raw vegetables. I should have paced myself better, but was more or less full by the time I got to the baba ganoush. I tried a bit anyhow and enjoyed the soft, creamy texture of the eggplant and the slightly tart aftertaste thanks to a few squeezes of lemon. I was indifferent about the shrimp salad and stayed away for the most part, if only because it looked like it had a heavy serving of mayonnaise and one can never be sure if mayonnaise in Egypt is fully dairy free (case in point: soy milk sold in most supermarkets has skim milk powder in it…um…hello? Someone clearly didn’t think that one through).
Ultimately, it was a trifecta of social goodness: good food, good ambiance and good company. A bit of old world Europe nestled inside a modestly sized apartment in Cairo. What’s not to like?