I will feign deafness if I ever hear someone criticizing the concept of a fine dining Mexican restaurant in Egypt. Tex-Mex fried mozzarella sticks and buffalo wings from Chili’s is not really Mexican, and lord were we missing something on the city’s dining scene until Maria’s came along.
I was a little surprised at first to hear that Fairmont Heliopolis and Towers had opened such an outlet. Off the main lobby, the restaurant’s somewhat small space comprises a bar area and dining room, the interior is painted a muted orange and framed images and a few knick knacks resting on shelves seek to suggest Acapulco.
From the looks of the menu, the question of authenticity was a serious one. No buffalo wings were to be found thankfully and I was told the chef in the kitchen had been brought in from Mexico.
Dining with a friend, we were set on catching up on gossip, news, revolution conspiracy theories — the usual lunchtime banter, and while settling in, a basket of nachos and spicy salsa dip in a clay bowl arrived. I caution young ones from trying the dip, and though both of us were Indian food aficionados; even we were caught off guard.
The menu is split into famosas botanas, i.e. famous starters: ceviches, classic soups, light salads and a long list of main courses “from the farm” and “from the sea.” Breaking it down, and bearing in mind the heat, we tried to select weather-appropriate options.
Some of the dishes have entertaining headings. Though my initial choice of creamy octopus “in love” spicy salad on tortialla shells topped with cilantro was not available, I ordered the sopes de chicaroon de atun; crunchy tuna and onion salad over corn sopes with avocado salsa and cheese (LE 75).
Our second appetizer was a ceviche bravo, salmon and mango ceviche with a hint of bravo chile (LE 80). Ceviche is a Central and South American specialty of fish pickled to cook with nothing but lime or lemon juice. Yes it is sushi, but dare I offend sushi fans and the Japanese by claiming it to be more sophisticated?
Ceviche requires more attention when preparing it, and there’s a wide variety of takes on the concept.
Our ceviche’s combination of thick cubes of raw salmon with diced mango was to the palate a novelty. Mushy texture aside, the taste was good if you enjoy raw salmon. Perhaps an extra dash of limejuice would have brought the flavors together more harmoniously.
The winner of the two appetizers though was the tuna and onion sopes. Sopes are small burrito shaped dough bases made from cornflour, atop of which rested the tuna and onion. Drizzled with the avocado salsa, a sauce that was again, quite spicy, the three individual pies were a comfortable portion size, but this could easily be translated into a great main dish.
Skipping soups and salads, it was too hot a day and, frankly, who considers cutting calories when dining out? I ordered a cocktail off their drinks menu: a Rainforest margarita made from sauza silver tequila, strawberry, lemon juice and blueberry liqueur (LE 95). Sweet but not too strong, it was a great choice for sipping on throughout the meal.
We moved onto mains. “from the farm,” we ordered tamales estilo “oaxaca” which comprised of guajillo chillies and chicken stew corn dough tamales wrapped in banana leaves (LE 90), and tachos de carnitas de ternera detailed as “Michoacan” style veal confit tacos with pico de gallo, refried beans and avocado salsa (LE 90).
The tamales came down hot, served on the banana leaf that they had been cooked in. What I was enjoying most of all so far was all the various textures. The tamales rough cornflour dough paired with the tender chicken were so delicious unlike anything one could regularly order whilst dining out in Egypt.
The tachos de carnitas would have been good too had they either been paired with lean and moist cuts of meat or else perhaps the confit had been soft and not overcooked, it was dry at the edges. The tacho’s side dishes of refried beans, pico de gallo and sensationally spicy avocado sauce were perfect. The refried beans both sweet and savory, again perfect to counter the spiciness of it all.
Portion sizes so far were fairly sized and ordering several courses is feasible.
Dessert is a must, I implore you. Our enthusiastically chatty server suggested, somewhat surprisingly, that we might want to consider just one dessert item, recommending the chimichanga de banano, a crispy tortilla wrap stuffed with bananas, chocolate and hazelnuts served with a ball of vanilla ice cream on top (LE 30).
I insisted we also try the nieve de mango al pioquin, which was mango sorbet with some lemon juice, dusted off with Mexican chilli powder and salt mix (LE 25). The absurdity of the suggestion piqued my curiosity to try.
The chimichanga blew our taste buds away figuratively whilst the mango sorbet blew our taste buds, physically. The chimichanga in the words of my friend was the best of several (dessert) worlds: it was as if pecan pie, crepes and apple pie had all melded together.
The combination of tastes and flavors coated with a fine dusting of sugar were a palatal high note. The mango sorbet was a palatal explosion with the sweetness of mango becoming zesty, almost sour, with forceful flavors of chili powder and salt knocking you about. It is a slightly uncomfortable experience, but try it for the novelty at least just once.
When paying the check, cotton candy was brought to the table, and it was the last note of playfulness that topped off my appreciation. Service is thorough but the dishes weren’t served too quickly, perhaps suggesting that dishes were made as each order came in, and perhaps, you were meant to appreciate the leisurely pace of it all.
It’s a great place for lunches, big family dinners and perhaps even a date. Ladies dining on Saturdays and Wednesdays get 50 percent off their meal during the month of July.
Fairmont Heliopolis and Towers
Tel: (02) 2267 7730/40
Open 2 pm-12 am