Sitting in the massive lair of an Egyptian restaurant in the middle of bleak dog-eared Abu Hail, my imagination was doing a sleazy song, dance and sudden mafia-style shoot-out to break up the non-existent party. I had never seen such a large dining room in any of the little Abu Hail joints. And definitely not one with overhanging chandeliers. Farhat Alasli seemed like one of those dusty places where deals are struck, bonds are strengthened, scores are settled. A restaurant that is more than just a restaurant. A restaurant where someone with a silver tooth and gold chains is perched upon a throne in a secret smoky room somewhere at the back – maybe behind that innocent Chinese divider I had spotted, which had no other logical raison d’être in an Egyptian restaurant.
I temporarily traded in my poetic license for a bowl of lentil soup, the surest way of silencing my wanton thoughts. Someone used the word ‘nurturing’ to describe a lamb dish on my food tour last night – and that’s exactly the word that describes this soup. The comforting nature of the lentils begged me to stop peering at the Chinese divider and focus on deflating crusty balloons of bread in the warm nurturing brew.
Our bowl of koshari was not a dish, it was an Event. A hefty shovel's worth of rice, garbanzos, spaghetti and macaroni were smothered under a blanket of crunchy caramelized onions.
The whole carb-heavy construction stared back at us like one of those ludicrous eat-this-stupidly-huge-burger-in-ten-minutes competitions. And to make things even more outlandish, we had ordered chopped pieces of minced lamb kofte to crown a bowl that was one onion sliver away from exploding with its overstuffed koshari contents.
I prefer the more restrained yet flavourful koshari and addictive tomato sauce of temporarily-closed Al Ammor, but the spiced vinegar and bitter chilli oil were definitely winners on Farhat’s koshari show. I’d order this dish again, except that I’d drag three other friends with me to hack through the carb jungle together.
My duck meal was definitely overkill given the koshari on the table, but this had been recommended highly by an Egyptian friend and was the reason I’d made my way to Farhat Alasli. While the duck innards were a rich juicy pink encased in crackly skin, they lacked seasoning or some form of acidity needed to cut through the richness. The more interesting elements of the duck meal were the buttery rice and vermicelli nestled under the bird, as well as the gizzards that had been stacked discreetly to one side of the plate.
The green sap-like molokhiya served with the duck didn’t have a fair chance after the amount of food we had already ingested. Had I begun with the silky sticky soup, I might have spent more time pondering over the wooden, almost jute-like aftertaste that was not familiar, but not unpleasant either. I had reached that heavy point where I was completely wiped out by the portions and everything tasted the same. Next time, we’ll be more restrained.
As we stumbled out dizzy with food coma into the warm afternoon sun, I couldn’t help but look back at that mysterious back door behind the Chinese divider one last time. I silently paid my respects to the gold chained, silver toothed, ruby ringed man who just might be peering back at me through a secret opening somewhere, back there.
Behind Abraj Hotel in Abu Hail, in the same line as Canadian Specialist Hospital.