Monday, March 31, 2008

L" Asiatique

Restaurant: L'Asiatique

Address: Le Pacha 1901, Saray El Gezirah StreetZamalek, Cairo, Egypt

Opening hours: 7:00 PM to 2:00 AM, Open for lunch on Fridaysfrom 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM

Tel: +202 2735 6730

After watching the Lord of the Dance, we decided to go to L'Asiatique on the Le Pacha boat at Zamalek for a meal. While I have been to Le Steak, Johhny Carrino and Maharani, I've never been to L'Asiatique, and, it seems like a quick and close option for a bunch of really hungry people.

And I must say the place did not dissapoint. The decor is classy and upmarket - no cheesy red lanterns that seem to dot most chinese eateries. Elegantly done interiors, parque floors polished to a shine. They have two very interesting seating arrangements in a pit in the middle of the restaurant (see photo above) which creates an impression of space in the otherwise crowded eatery.

It was the 2nd day of the week, and, I was surprised to see the place was full and buzzing!! There were families and the gliterrati of Cairo rubbing shoulders. I thought I recognised a couple of people from the Flatley show. Guess they had the same idea as us, and, believe me, it was a good idea to come to L' Asiatique. The ambience, the buzz to the place, the company and the food were all great. I understand that the L'Asiatique was voted the third best restaurant in Africa, and the best in Egypt, by the World's 50 Best Restaurants, organized by Restauant Magazine of London, England.

We ordered some spring rolls (chicken and vegetarian LE24.50) and chicken dumplings (LE 27.50) for starters. Vegetarian Spring Rolls are available so I did not have to watch hungrily while others ate. They came pretty quick, served with dipping sauces and were very good.

For a demanding tabel of 10, the service was very prompt and courteous. Of course, it helped that one of our company was a very good friend of the owner, so we got exceptional treatment. But I was looking around, and, in general, the service seemed very efficient.

The soups were very good especially the Chicken Sweet Corn. For the vegetarians, we ordered a Vegetarian Stir Fry served on a hot platter and a vegetarian fried rice (LE 10). On request, they also made a vegetarian version of the Chicken in Red Thai curry with steamed rice. A mixed plate of sushi (LE 97.50), some stir fried beef (LE 49.90), chicken fried rice, Sweet & Sour shrimps (LE 59.90) were also ordered.

The vegetarian fare was very good. The Red Thai curry was just right and tasted delicious with the steamed rice. Even the vegetarian stir fry in a soya based sauce was yummy. The chicken fried rice was essentially the vegetarian version topped with peices of boiled chicken. According to my husband, the beef was good quality and very well done. The food was uniformly good.

The desserts were to die for. A date pie with ice cream, a chocolate tart with vanilla ice cream and gooey chocolat sauce and a macaroon with caramel sauce.. it was all extremely delicious, and got polished in a trice. This is despite everyone protesting that they did not want desserts to begin with!!

Its definitely worth going back again and again, not only for the food but also for the atmosphere. And while we are talking about the atmosphere, a small snippet on the history / legend of Le Pacha!!
The Legend of Le Pacha 1901

Once upon a time, a distinguished and aging Pacha from Upper Egypt had a dream. He longed to build himself a floating palace on the Nile to live out his last days. The Pacha collected treasures and masterpieces to adorn his palace and by 1887, he had prepared his designs and began to build his dream. In 1901, the Pacha passed away without having fulfilled his dream, and left his estate to two daughters. The daughters chose to live in their Cairo mansion and abandoned the unfinished boat in Upper Egypt.

Nearly a full century later, a traveler exploring the banks of the Nile, came upon the abandoned and partially sunken boat. This person fell in love with the majesty and luxury he could still envision through the mud and dust. And so he went to work looking for the owners of the wreck and the original designs. He acquired it, refurbished it, added two more decks and named the, reborn, boat: "Le Pacha 1901". The old Pacha's bedroom was at the prow, where "Le Tarbouche" is found today...

Michael Flately - Lord of the Dance

Finally, went to see the show at Cairo Opera House. Waiting for friends, realised that a show like this is probably as much a social occassion as it is a performance. Cairenes were there, dressed to the nines, so were the expats.

Lord of the Dance is an Irish musical and dance production that was created, choreographed, produced by Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley. He used to be a part of the famous Riverdace show till he parted company with them in 1995 and then concieved this show. The show premeiered in 1996.

The story follows the character "Lord of the Dance" and his fight against the evil dark lord "Don Dorcha" from taking over Planet Ireland. The Lord of the Dance defeats his invasion with a little help from a little spirit. There is also a story with a "love vs lust" theme expressed through dance throughout the show. "Saoirse, the Irish CailĂ­n" fights for the love of the "Lord of the Dance" against the wicked "Morrigan, the Temptress". The stories are based in ancient Irish folklore and a bit of Biblical references.

The music was typically Irish and one associated with tap dancing. It has been oft rumured that the dance is supplemeted by taps-on-tape but if it was, it was not apparent to me.

The dances are broken up by songs and musical numbers. The singer had a nice voice but the songs did not seem very relevant to the plot, but maybe that was because I could not really understand all the words. So to me, they were more a break in the performance rather than advancing the story, though I'm sure they were intended to.

The other dancing break came in the form of a pair of violinists. They were exciting, and wonderful.

Other than that, the dancing was brilliant. The lead dancer was very good, though I thought the Dark Lord Dorcha, brought more passion/ acting to his performance. Plus the conflict between the Lord of the Dance and the Dark Lord was not too well sketched and they relied more on the music than on dance to depict that effectively.

Having said, the whole performance was a treat to watch and the tap dancing excellent. Watching them tap dance effortlessly (at least it seemed so though I'm sure years of practice goes into it), makes you marvel at their co-ordination, precision, sense of rythm and the level of fitness. All in all, def worth a watch!!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sharm-el-Sheikh - The stay

Almost all well known hotel chains are present in Sharm. We wanted to stay at either the Hyatt or Sheraton but they were completely booked. I believe that Sharm starts getting booked from Jan end onwards and during the peak season, its almost impossible to find a place to stay...

We finally stayed at a resort called Maritim Jolie Villie Golf & Resort (the erstwhile Movenpick) as it came highly recommended by some friends.

And I must say, it did not dissapoint!! At around LE 500 a night, the rooms were large, cottage style, right next to the pool (thank goodness! It kept the kids occupied)

Stay in the Royal Wing. While its a bit of a trek to the main lobby, golf carts are available to ferry you around. The rooms, as well as the bathrooms, are new and really large. Each has a little sit-out with cane chairs and a table, making for wonderful tea time relaxation. We would sit there having tea, while our kids ran amock in the garden.

One catch is that the resort is far away from N'ama Bay, if you're big on the night life (but to me it was a bonus being away from the crowds). For that you need to have your own transport or you can catch a cab or ask the hotel for a taxi. A hotel limo will cost you around LE 60 to N'ama Bay while a regular cab would be around LE 40. Before you wrinkle your nose and say "cab!", let me tell you that the cabs in Sharm are very different from the old beat-up black and white cabs that you see in Cairo. These are swanky Toyotas, Lancers, Hyundais etc painted a pleasing white and blue. I believe in the last one year, the Governer ordered all cabs to be changed to brand new ones, so they are a very pleasing and comfortable ride...

In addition to evening entertainment, the pool and great food, the hotel offers a lot of water sports. Oh, there are some lovely water slides that both you and your kids will absolutely love, and, will keep the kids entertained for a really long time! The hotel also offers a Snoopy Club to keep the children occupied..

The only other catch is the beach, if you have kids. Cos the beach is not a sandy beach where the kids can play and make sand castles. Its a rocky edge to the sea, which on the other hand, is great if you're into snorkelling. The access to the water is a bit tedious, as you need to climb down to get to the water, but once you're there, the water is a delight. Its a gorgeous ink blue and you can see the corals, and, myriad coloured fish swimming in the water. My son was really excited at the number of jellyfishes that he saw! You can spend hours in the water marvelling at the wonderous colours that nature has bestowed on these sea creatures.. its almost like you were given a blank page and allowed to let your imagination run wild with the colours that you could use.... the added bonus being that its NOT crowded like the other beaches and you're not jostling for space...

Which reminds me.. all hotels offer a glass bottom boat ride which you must do. At approx $15 per head for a one hour ride, its definately worth a one time do. The fish and the coral that you will see are breathtaking! My kid went berserk shooting with his camera and just could not get over the colours that he saw in the fish. Its truly an awesome experience for the young ones...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sharm-el-Sheikh - The Drive

Easter break's here, so we decided to head to Sharm-el-Sheikh or "Sharm" as the locals call it. “Sharm” means a finger of land jutting into the sea / peninsula which is what the city derives its name from. Fondly known as the "resort capital of the world", Sharm is essentially the beach, resorts, more resorts and some more resorts!!

A one hour flight from Cairo (Egypt Air) or a 6 hour drive, the choice is yours. Since we were traveling with friends, we decided to drive. I was told that the drive was very nice, albeit a little long. Most importantly, driving gave you the flexibility of having your own car when in Sharm. So driving down was what it was going to be! Given that it’s a long drive, its best to set out early morning, cos the overhead sun can get very hot as noon approaches... So we left at 6.30 am in the morning (earlier would be even better)...

What can I say about the drive, other than a long heartfelt gasp of admiration! The topography of the Sinai region is rolling in places, flat in others, but uniformly a dusty, desolate brown of the dessert. Flat tabletop mountains, stark, melancholy, brooding yet majestic, the route is dotted with resort complexes like Moon Beach, Abu Zenima etc...

There are stretches where the water pays hide and seek with the brown of the dessert, a lovely blue, but not the azure of the sea near the Suez.

Petrified sand dunes with myriad shapes - you can let your imagination run wild and find so many imageries in the mountains that surround you. There is a stretch where it would appear that a hundred ancient pharonic figures, seated on their stately thrones, watch the cavalcade of vehicles speed by. Yet another set of rocks look like an ancient pharonic burial temple.

There are places where it seems like the mountains were like lace and ruffles that have been plucked out from the land, , some others have ridges running along them which make them seem like mini-fortress walls criss-crossing the mountains...

Yet other stretches are barren flatlands with sand mountains looming large ...some others are layered in black and brown and look like they've been painted by the weeping brush of a disconsolate artist on the blue canvas of the sky...As you drive into Sharm, the view of the bay is breathtaking....

I believe till 1968, Sharm was nothing more than a fishing community, yet today its the most popular beach resort that Egypt has to offer. Sharm is now a well developed area that seems more like a European resort than Egyptian, with great facilities and amenities, including some budget oriented accommodations as well as five star hotels. And, while one is capable of spending almost any budget at their disposal here, for most Europeans, it remains a relatively inexpensive alternative to more costly beach resort alternatives elsewhere. Which is the reason why Sharm has an international airport where flights - regular airlines as well as chartered flights - seem to land all through the day (my son counted 13 flights in a short 3 hr period that we spent in the evening on N'eama Bay)...

More on Sharm in a later post....

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Another Arabic TV Channel - Al Ahram Weekly

As Israel was dealing Egypt, Syria and Jordan a drastic military defeat in June 1967 Egypt's state-run media was telling a completely different story. Egypt's forces were actually "victorious" according to Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio presenter Ahmed Said. It wasn't until millions of Egyptians and Arabs tuned into the Arabic service of the British Broadcasting Cooperation that they heard news of the humiliating defeat that would re-shape the Middle East.

Forty-one years later the BBC has launched an Arabic TV channel. It began broadcasting on 11 March at 10:00 GMT and will initially air for 12 hours a day on three satellites. The media environment, though, could not be more different to that of 1967 when the BBC's Arabic service offered one of only a handful of alternatives to the total control of information exercised by Arab governments and while the BBC's Arabic radio service has remained a respected and trusted source of news the 300 million strong Arab audience has enjoyed a relatively free and professional flow of news and information for a decade now thanks to the advent of Arab satellite channels.

BBC Arabic TV will be competing with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network, listed by Time magazine three years ago as one of the 100 most influential organisations in the world. Other competitors include Saudi Arabia's Al-Arabiya, Hizbullah's Al-Manar and Lebanon's LBC. Yet news of the BBC's Arabic TV launch has generated excitement and anticipation in media circles.
"It's something to look forward to. The profession only flourishes when there is competition," Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief Hussein Abdel-Ghani told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It adds to the camp of independent and free-media advocates."

Abdel-Ghani, like hundreds of other journalists who work for Arab satellite channels, is worried that the relative freedom they've enjoyed so far could be threatened by last month's endorsement by 20 Arab governments of a charter that allows for punitive action against satellite channels that offend Arab leaders. The "Principles for Organising Satellite TV in the Arab World" permits broadcasting authorities to withdraw permits from Arab channels. The charter, which caused an uproar amongst satellite channels, will not apply to the BBC, a British-owned cooperation.

BBC Arabic TV -- the first satellite channel to launch after the charter's endorsement -- will also be "the first to benefit from it", says media expert and editor of the Weghat Nazar cultural monthly Ayman El-Sayyad.

"If Arab governments do impose restrictions on Arab satellite channels the result will be to control the transfer of news and not its reception. The skies are full of non-Arab satellites and viewers will still have free access to them." Yet the "mentality" that still governs decision-makers in the Arab world, says El-Sayyad, remains decades out of date, stuck in the period between the 1950s and 1990s when the authorities could control their local media.

"In the Arab consciousness the BBC is associated with news in the absence of news," he said, "and history seems to be repeating itself as the BBC establishes a TV presence."

That the Egyptian authorities are ready and willing to interfere in the running of TV stations was made clear when, recently, the Egyptian Al-Hayat (life) TV station was granted a licence only after it agreed to a list of conditions including a ban on talk shows. "The BBC will operate outside the conditions imposed by the Arab authorities," notes Al-Sayyad.

BBC Arabic's top man Hossam El-Sokkari disagrees. "The charter has been overrated," he told the Weekly. "If unhappy with a particular broadcaster, governments either restrict the reporter's movement or close the office down. This would still be a risk and the charter does not make it any worse. I am not sure there is much change there."

The BBC's Arabic TV station "will not change its professional editorial policy as a result of [the charter]. Our brand and the quality of our journalism has been appreciated for more than 70 years."

The charter, El-Sokkari argues, is a sign of the frustration of Arab governments with the media which has repeatedly crossed what used to be considered red lines. But it is not anything that concerns the BBC, says El-Sokkari. "We do not allow our editorial integrity to be affected by government policies."

"We are independent and funded by British tax payers. We don't want to push a political message to Arab viewers nor do we want to dictate or promote any values."
Since BBC Arabic TV went on air, media pundits have been keen to compare it with Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, two stations with very different editorial policies. On Tuesday Egypt's Dream TV devoted its "10 o'clock" show to the topic.

While Al-Jazeera is generally viewed as pan-Arab and sympathetic to Arab causes, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya -- generally viewed as US-leaning -- seeks to project an image of non-biased, objective news coverage. The differences are most noticeable in the terminology used by the channels: Al-Arabiya will speak of "terrorism" and "suicide operations" while Al-Jazeera refers to "resistance" and "martyrdom". Al-Jazeera speaks of the "US occupation of Iraq" while Al-Arabiya prefers the neutral "US forces in Iraq". BBC Arabic TV seems to have settled for the "US campaign in Iraq".

Opinion polls show that Al-Jazeera -- which broadcasts on 26 satellites -- is the most viewed Arab satellite news channel. Its early history, ironically perhaps, was closely linked to the BBC, which in 1994 launched a TV channel with Saudi Orbit as a partner. After two years of broadcasting, the project stalled, was taken over by the Qataris practically lock, stock and barrel, and the now influential Al-Jazeera was born.

It will take time for the BBC's Arabic TV station to carve out a niche in the crowded satellite market. What the initial broadcasts reveal, though, are impressive editing, relaxed but lively presenters and hosts and an ultra sleek look unmatched by its competitors. But despite its long history in the region, BBC’s Arabic TV will still have to offer more than state of the art British broadcasting techniques to impress viewers in this part of the world.

Michael Flateley - Lord of the Dance

Cairo Opera House is host to Michael Flately's show - the Lord of the Dance.

Running succesfully for over 10 years now, its a classic tale of Good vs Evil...and Michael Flately is famous for his precision dancing and pyrotecniques.

Being staged on March 30 and 31st, tickets are priced at LE 600, 800 and 1000.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Ain Sokhna

Ever since I have come to Cairo, I’ve heard people talking about Ain Sokhna. It’s the favourite weekend haunt of many of my expat friends, probably because it represents one of the closest beaches to the city.

Ain Sokhna means “hot spring" and the name originates from the sulfur springs in Gebal Ataqa, a nearby Eastern Desert mountain. It is a region that stretches from just south of Suez down the coast for about sixty kilometers, and mostly consists of a port along with a series of resort complexes, with a few independent restaurants, gas stations and other facilities scattered along the coastal road.

It’s about 1.5 -2 hours drive from Cairo on a wide and well maintained road. The scenery along the drive is a fascinating desolate brown of the dessert, but even that does not detract from the sheer magnificence of the dessert around you.

We stayed at the Stella di Mare, an upscale resort at Ain Sokhna. The facility is great, with a lovely pool and access to the beach. The blue of the water is breathtaking!

During this season, the rates are around LE 900 for a double room which is on the higher side, but I guess the resort needs to charge these rates since the business is seasonal. This rate is on half board basis and includes a buffet breakfast and dinner. The rooms are of a decent size, the food is ok, and the resort offers a lot of activities for children and adults alike. The resort also offers day packages for Cairenes wanting to do a day trip to Ain Sokhna, so you can drive down just for the day.

At the beach, Aqua Fun offers a motorboat experience, or a banana boat ride amongst other things. The banana boat is great fun and a must try! The sea bed is sandy, unlike the coral dotted sea bed at Hurgada, making it perfectly safe for the kids to run around in the water. However, if you plan on deep sea diving, Ain Sokhna is not the place for it.

There is no direct flight to Ain Sokhna unlike Hurgada or Sharm. However, it’s a very comfortable drive from Cairo. So the next time the sun seems too hot, and a weekend is looming close, just pack an overnighter, tank up the 4 wheel drive and hit the beach at Ain Sokhna!