Where time stands still
Old-school romance is still alive in Cairo, as Sunita Rappai finds out
They say that anywhere can be romantic with the right person, but I'd argue that there are still certain universal truths on this subject. A trip to McDonald's or the dentist, for example, is not generally considered romantic. Paris in springtime is. Ditto a wander through the backstreets of Rome, stopping off for fresh pasta and a nice glass of vino on the way. Or, most clichéd of all, a moonlit stroll on a sparkling beach, hand-in-hand with your loved one.
Do a search for romantic destinations in Cairo and the Ramses Hilton's Windows on the World restaurant is high up on the list. It's the view that does it -- there's something about being perched high atop the city, watching the sun set over a lazily glinting Nile, drinking in Cairo's chaotic beauty, which seems to bring out the dreamy romantic in us all. (The Hilton's been taking advantage of this for years, with sister Windows on the World restaurants in cities as far afield as London, UK, and Osaka, Japan).
On the 36th floor of the Ramses Hilton -- one of Cairo's oldest big chain hotels -- Windows is an oasis of calm, especially after negotiating your way through crazy Thursday- night traffic, and at least three wedding parties in the foyer, to get there. The first thing that strikes you, as it should, is the view -- those huge windows with their picture-perfect views of the city at night, sprinkled with stardust. The second is the quiet. Watching the world through a prism of glass can induce a kind of soporific stupor in the most jaded of hearts -- even the terrible traffic outside suddenly becomes a string of pretty lights, twinkling merrily in the distance.
Walking in, we are immediately escorted to a table in the corner of the restaurant, right next to the windows, alongside several other couples who have also been afforded these prime spots. The lighting is dim, probably to enhance the romantic ardour, and in the background, a small band is crooning easy-listening favourites -- think Celine Dion and Norah Jones. The décor is pleasant enough, though, with its neutral colours and preponderance of white, a little on the bland side. Windows clearly isn't one of those new-fangled places that want to make a statement -- rather, it sticks to tried and tested formulas from the restaurant rule book.
This extends to the menu which is full of old-school favourites, from Shrimp Cocktail and Chicken Caesar Salad to Lasagna and Lobster Thermidor. Pondering my starter, I can't decide between the Smoked Salmon Rose -- smoked salmon with melba toast -- or the Arugula salad with grilled salmon, so the waiter kindly steps in and offers me a combination of the two. (Now that's what I call good service!). My companion opts for the hot mezzeh selection -- a mix of kobeba, sambousek, Vine leaves etc. Both are excellent -- beautifully presented, generously-sized and very fresh.
For our main course, I pick the Oriental Mixed Grill while he plumps for the Beef Tenderloin. Apart from a slightly gloopy brown sauce that comes on both our dishes, they're both very good. My mixed grill comes in tender nouvelle- cuisine sized portions, while his tenderloin is beautifully cooked and succulent, enlivened by a tangy onion marmalade. Since it's always important to leave room for dessert -- in the interests of providing a balanced review, of course -- we opt for two: a trio of apple crumble, vanilla ice cream and raspberry mousse, and a crème brulee with a tropical fruit ice cream and a pyramid dacquoise, which turns out to be a wonderfully light coconut and pineapple cake.
So is it romantic? Yes, in an old-school kind of way. I can't fault the place -- the tablecloths are spotless, the cutlery sparkles, the service is impeccable and yet... there's an air of slightly faded grandeur to it all. When the pianist starts playing, I'm reminded of that scene in Casablanca, but it isn't so much As Time Goes By, I think, as Where Time Stood Still. If I close my eyes and I could be in the Cairo of yesteryear, which is a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. Still, for a good, old-fashioned romantic night out, Windows is pretty hard to beat. And if all else fails, just feast on the view.