Restaurant: LA BODEGA
Address: 157, 26th of July St.
Telephone: 2735 05 43 / 2736 21 88
Hours: 12.00 p.m. to 1.00 a.m.
La is the Spanish word for "the" while Bodega means a store specializing in Hispanic groceries and also a storehouse for wine. Consequently, when I first heard about La Bodega, it conjured up images of mature fruity wines and scrumptious paellas, tapas, migas, gazpachos, chorizos and of course the ubiquitous rice pudding! Unfortunately, as luck would have it, no amount of planning bore fruition and La Bodega remained on my list of "must do" places.
So today when some friends decided to organise a lunch at La Bodega, the temptation of the company and the place were too much to resist. So the afternoon found me battling the Cairo traffic to make it to this Mecca of fine dining despite this Cinderella's deadline being 2.30 p.m. I was determined to make it!
Located in the heart of Zamalek, the restaurant occupies the first floor of the historical Baehler Mansion built on land which was once a part of the Khedive's palace gardens. The mansion also houses a Maison Thomas, Drinkies etc. As I stood looking at this grand old mansion, for a moment I wondered what Baehler would have thought of what's become of his grandiose construction?
But not to detract from my gastronomic adventure, remember to look for the words "Baehler Mansion" cos there is nothing at eye level to indicate the location of La Bodega. Perhaps, befitting the quiet elegance and its pre-imminent place in the culinary world of Cairo, you have to look heavenward to see "La Bodega". As you walk into the building, and climb up the stairs, be warned, there is nothing at the entrance or the stairs that points to the existence of the restaurant. Curiouser and curiouser!
As you walk past the old fashioned elevator cage, a large stone relief by the Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr welcomes you. On your right is the La Bodega "Lounge" while the La Bodega "Bistro & Bar" beckons you on the left. As I walked into the Bistro, I was struck by the ambience of the place - very reminiscent of the belle epoque period of Cairo's history, very Parisian. Long windows with dark polished wooden frames, cosy seating, paintings depicting people making merry and enjoying their food, there is a quiet, understated elegance to La Bodega! I made a mental note to ask the restaurant the name of the artists - the rawness of the paintings somehow appealed to me! If I closed my eyes I could actually picture Cairo of the Twenties, this room filled with women in beautiful gowns and men in their formal attire smoking their pipes and sampling the best in gourmet cuisine. A hello from my friends shook me out of my reverie..
A quick look at the menu disabused me of any notions of Spanish cuisine. The menu is essentially Italian with some delicious salads and main entrees.
My Goat Cheese salad was delicious with just the right hint of pepper and tart in the salad, bread grilled to perfection and perfect goat cheese. A mushroom and spinach salad, and, a grilled vegetable salad were equally appetising.
The mushroom risotto was delicious, though I would actually recommend sharing it with someone cos after sometime the cream and cheese gets too much, though this is of course completely a personal opinion - I can never finish a full plate of anything which has cream sauce. The mushroom ravioli was "mmmm", close to the risotto in flavour but much stronger (bound to be since they were both mushroom and cream sauce based) but DELICIOUS.
Since I am a vegetarian, have no idea what my friend's chicken dish was like but she liked it. Since I arrived late, have no idea what it was, but it appeared to be grilled chicken topped with pesto with zucchini on a bed of mushrooms (which appeared to be missing!)
The service is quiet, efficient and quick and the prices extremely reasonable. I think the most expensive dish was around LE 50-60 from what I can remember as I quickly skimmed down the menu hunting for vegetarian food. And for a change, there is enough and more choice for vegetarians!!
One of my friends commented that it was not only that the food at La Bodega was good, but what was important is that the food is consistently good! I can’t think of a bigger compliment to the chef and the kitchen especially in Cairo.
The clock struck two, and it was time for Cinderella to run before her carriage turned to dust, so I rushed out promising myself that I would be back sometime soon, and, this time, I would savour the food and the place over a long, relaxed meal!!
Reference: Egypt’s belle époque was a period of incredible extravagance during which the Khedive Ismail’s Cairo became the mirror image, both architecturally and socially, of decadent Paris. The glamour and hedonism of the era reached its peak during the magnificent celebrations for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Kings and emperors, artists, writers and Europe’s most sophisticated flocked to the dazzling new Cairo of sumptuous palaces and Parisian gardens, where Verdi’s Aida premiered at the new opera house and glittering parties were held on the banks of the Nile. But the splendour was short-lived. Only a year after the Suez Canal opened, the Second Empire in France collapsed and the Khedive’s excesses plunged Egypt into crippling debt. Ismail was eventually forced to abdicate, leaving Cairo to the British who occupied Egypt in all but name