Still, on the quest to find a good Indian restaurant in Cairo, I was quite excited to try Indira, under the assumption that since it was under hotel management, the food and service, would be of high quality. It had been months since my taste buds were tickled by succulent spices and herbs, and looking at the menu outside the restaurant inside City Stars made my mouth water. Sadly, however, that was as far as the drooling went.
Upon walking into the small restaurant, we were met with an x-ray machine, quite an unusual start. Because it was busy, the waiter sat us down to wait in front of the prep kitchen, until a table was available, where chefs were busy kneading dough for what I assumed were the garlic naans. It was entertaining to watch, for the first few minutes, and we were handed our menus to peruse. The menu came in the form of one large sheet of paper, held by a leather holder, available in Arabic and English. I decided to try the Chicken Tikka Massala, while my company decided to try the Butter Chicken and a vegetarian dish with potatoes.
Fifteen minutes had passed and we had still not been seated, although a couple of tables had been cleared. I had by now memorized how to knead dough into little naan shapes. I had also by now learned how to place minced chicken onto a skewer, and how to dip said skewer of chicken into a deep pot that I assumed was where the marination took place. We had asked two waiters if we were going to be seated soon, and they, looking quite rushed off their feet, would reply in the affirmative and then disappear.
As we waited some more, I took a good look at my surroundings. The restaurant design was sort of a hybrid–an East meets West, what with the orange wall at the side, with small, squared niches scattered across, displaying oriental artifacts I assumed was Indian. It wasn’t ultramodern, but modern enough for a hotel situated inside a mall. Being part of a corporate hotel chain, it did not look like an authentic Indian restaurant.
Half an hour had passed and we had still not been seated. In that time we had spoken to the chef and asked him what part of India he was from–Vikram from the north–whilst he told us the food in the menu was from different parts of India and not one specific area. That should have signaled alarm bells for me, as surely a chef cooking from different areas of a large, rich subcontinent is spreading himself too thin, meaning the food was going to be lacking.
That and the fact that the waiters were nowhere to be seen. It was then that I noticed other people waiting too, on the verge of complaining to the invisible manager. Something was definitely not right with the staff here.
Forty minutes later–twenty of which two empty tables were available but not yet cleared–we were seated. But the waiting was not over for us, the waiter was nowhere to be seen. The table near us joked about holding up their hands like children do in school, to call the teacher’s attention, so we did the same until the waiter finally noticed us.
It was nearly fifty minutes and we still hadn’t ordered. When the waiter finally came to our table he did not apologize for the wait, as professional waiters usually tell us. So we had to tell him how long we waited and ask how much longer we were going to wait for the food. Twenty minutes we were told, with a “I’ll be very upset if you’re upset” speech before he disappeared into the kitchen.
In the meantime, we were offered dips to dig into while we waited. The problem was, we didn’t have anything to dip with, no poppadoms, or naan–how were we supposed to eat the dips? We asked one of the staff who told us that the poppadoms had not arrived from India yet, so they were basically out. We were puzzled by two things: why couldn’t they make the poppadoms from scratch in the restaurant, they were making all types of naan in front of us in the prep kitchen, and why entice us with dips we couldn’t eat?
Thirty minutes had passed–making we wait a grand-total of over an hour. We had taken to playing with the rotating elevated glass table-top in the middle, passing around our drinks, anything to keep us entertained, when finally the food made an appearance. Now, it looked Indian, but it did not smell Indian–I could not detect the aroma of the special spices I was so used to back in the United Kingdom. But being ravenous by now, we tucked into our meals, a frown appearing on each of our foreheads one at a time.
It sure looked Indian, but it didn’t taste remote anywhere near the Indian subcontinent. The garlic naan, the ones we had watched being kneaded and placed in the oven, was shiny from the butter, and the texture was good, but I could not detect a hint of garlic, or anything for that matter. It was all very bland, from the rice to the main dishes.
So we asked for curry, and the head chef himself came over and presented a little saucer for us. He explained that foreigners who came to the hotel did not like their food to be spicy, which is why they were not allowed to make the dishes too hot. We suggested that they asked upon ordering how hot or mild the guest wanted their food, so as to avoid disappointment. After he had left, we added the chilly to our dishes and again, our foreheads creased. This was not the Indian chilly we knew and loved. This was the type of chilly you were offered in Koshary establishments.
We had had a disappointing evening so far, what with the waiting and the quality of the food that did not have a resemblance of any type of Indian we had devoured in our lifetime. It was time to leave. It was now approaching two hours since we entered the restaurant. We asked for the cheque, not expecting another wait. But wait we did- for another fifteen minutes. Waiters were either in the kitchen, or taking photographs with a tourist who wanted to savor the moment. As it was now approaching ten in the evening, most of the tables were empty, so we were unsure why there was a lack of staff.
By now we were at the end of our tether and wanted to move. We reminded another waiter of our cheque, who reminded the waiter was serving us, who then remembered to go to the computer and print out our bill. Unprofessionalism does not even describe it.
Two hours and a half of torture, the three of us paid the grand total of 550 Egyptian pounds. If the food was good, if the staff were competent, if the atmosphere was authentic, we would have gladly paid and tipped the waiter serving us. But Indira turned out to be a dire event that would not be repeated.
Upon leaving, the waiter handed us a little box with an Indira logo. He told us it was a little gift from the restaurant, something we had seen waiters hand out to every guest leaving. Looking inside the box, it was a packet of Indian spices.
We laughed and wanted to hand it back to the waiter.
If anything, the restaurant needed it more than we did.
Indira Indian Restaurant
Holiday Inn – City Stars