Something I often bang on about often in restaurant reviews is that feeling of being elsewhere, of the power some places have to completely transport you, in mind if not in body. Restaurants as travel agents, taking you somewhere else without having to rack up a huge hotel bill or get to the airport two hours early, or feel that sense of gloom about no longer being able to join the “arrivals from the EU” queue.
Last Saturday evening I had dinner on the sunlit terrace at Buon Appetito, and I felt like I could have been anywhere on the continent but nowhere near Reading. My Aperol spritz shone a luminous orange, soft jazz was playing on the speakers and my pizza was speckled with savoury bombs of gorgonzola left, right and centre. At the end of the meal the manager brought over a couple of amaros for us to try – one from Sicily, rich and sweet, the other from Calabria, medicinal with rosemary and mint. Could I really be a stone’s throw from the Oxford Road? It felt hard to credit.
I had a similar feeling the following day, pretty much from the moment Zoë and I walked through the front door of Cairo Café. It’s where Beijing Noodle House used to be, in a site they’ve bizarrely divided into two not side by side, as usual, but front and back: you walk down a corridor to get to Nepalese restaurant Chillim Kitchen out back, but at the front, with a much smaller bright yellow sign advertising its presence, is Cairo Café.
Inside is a little room that could maybe seat ten people, if they knew each other extremely well. Two small tables for two are on the left, all vibrant tablecloths, and on the right is a high table seating four. A couple more stools are up at the window staring out onto West Street, which offers a characterful viewing experience. It’s tiny, but I loved it, with all the little touches like the black and white photos on the wall and a couple of clocks showing Cairo and Reading time.
Like many places serving lunch in town, the menu – in bright yellow above the counter betrays a certain amount of bet hedging. You can have a conventional panini or baguette, if that’s what you want, and the menu gives you all the mainstream choices – tuna mayo, brie and bacon, chicken tikka and so on. And at the counter you can see all the steel dishes with those fillings, if you want to try the same sort of thing you could easily get somewhere like Pierre’s. But the middle of the menu, marked “Cairo Street Food”, is the reason I went: a range of Egyptian dishes, some of which I’d tried and some I’d never heard of. And the kitchen, just about visible out back, is where all of these are conjured up.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t have any falafel” said the owner, aproned and smiling. “It’s been a crazy morning.” Undeterred I asked him to explain a few things on the menu I hadn’t heard of before, and discovered that warak enab was what I would recognise as dolmades, stuffed vine leaves. He went on to explain that sakalans was an iconic Egyptian dessert, a sandwich made with halva, cream and honey: I made a mental note not to leave without trying it.
I placed my order – this is a venue where you pay at the end – and took a seat. The room had a strangely serene calm, and despite knowing that all the noise of the less salubrious end of town was just the other side of the door, I had that feeling of being transported, of not being in Kansas any more. I could see the owner up at the counter plucking fresh mint leaves for our tea and I had that dangerous feeling that comes from time to time, the slowly building hope that I might have discovered a gem. The tea, by the way, was cracking: fresh and fragrant.
Things improved still further when the chicken shawarma wraps arrived on their little tin plates. So many places don’t know how to assemble a wrap so it can be eaten, so instead either all of it falls out of the end or you get a giant indigestible clove hitch of tortilla. You wouldn’t want these people rolling you a joint, put it that way. By contrast Cairo Cafe’s wrap was a stunner, carefully assembled as a square and flattened under a grill – neat, no wasted space, and the crisped exterior almost reminiscent of a pastilla.
And the chicken inside was terrific: the whole filling was, in fact, with some kind of beautiful alchemy of chicken, cheese, mint and (this might have been my imagination) a hint of something like cinnamon. I ate it slowly, partly because it was hot but mostly because I didn’t want it to end. This cost a ridiculous – and in all honesty, unsustainable – four pounds fifty. You should go and try it, before he puts his prices up. He should put his prices up.
While we ate our wraps, in a sort of wordless euphoria, something lovely happened. A couple of gents came in to the café looking for a late lunch, but clearly in a rush. The owner explained that he was preparing our dishes and that it would take him a while to put some baguettes together. Were they willing to wait? It transpired that they weren’t, and so they scarpered and as the owner came over to take our plates away he was splendidly unapologetic.
“I’m not making food in a hurry. I want to give people something they’ll remember” – a quiet smile at this point, because the two chaps in question looked like they might have struggled to recall what they did the night before – “even if only for a little while.”
I was happy that we’d been prepared to wait, because our remaining choices, from the more resolutely Egyptian section of the menu, all came together and largely kept up a very high standard. Possibly the weakest thing were the waraq enab: I love stuffed vine leaves, but these weren’t quite the best I’ve had, a little too saccharine. I don’t know if they’re made on the premises – they might be, because they felt a little ragged and slightly loosely wrapped – but I’ve had better, both at Bakery House and at Blue Collar, from Fink as part of their superb mezze boxes. A good example of wayward pricing, too: these cost as much as a shawarma wrap. I know which I’d rather have.
But the other two dishes we’d chosen returned to the high standard of those wraps. Moutabal was a bright, zingy thing shot through with parsley, perfect loaded on to pitta (the pitta, again, was a slight weakness: a little hard, and not quite enough of it, although I’m inclined to be more forgiving than it was). It didn’t have the smokiness I associate with some examples – this was a light and happy dish, not a dark and brooding one – but I didn’t like it any the less for that. Dark and brooding gets boring, doesn’t it.
Even better was the sojuk, a marvellous surprise and one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I was expecting something like Bakery House’s maqaneq – sausages cooked and served simply with onion and lemon juice – but what I got instead was wonderful pieces of coarse, caramelised sausages, punchy and brick-red inside, in a thick, spiced gravy (if I didn’t know better, I’d have likened it to a curry). Slow-cooked, soft pieces of green pepper and green chilli were in the mix, giving the potential for every mouthful to be a gorgeous sunburst of heat.
Again, this was four pounds fifty and again I worry about the owner’s ability to make money charging so little. I ate forkful after forkful in beaming delight: Zoë loaded some on to a piece of pitta, dolloped some moutabal on top and said something to the effect of “this is really fucking good” between mouthfuls. It was, simply put, one of my favourite discoveries of 2022 so far, and I’m not sure I’m capable of going back and not ordering it.
As we reached the end, and sipped what was left of our mint tea, there was a moment of perfect peace. The hubbub of West Street had died away, no customers came in, the owner was out back. The clocks on the wall ticked away the advancing seconds, in Reading and Cairo, and I thought to myself: there’s something slightly magical about this place.
When the owner took these plates away, I asked him a little about Cairo Café. He’d been trading for four months, he said, and things were going well.
“Do you sell more stuff from the Egyptian side of the menu than the conventional dishes? It would be sad if most people who came here didn’t try this.”
“Yes, we do. But I try hard to convince people – we give out little samples, too.” I was reminded again of this man’s spiritual family here in Reading: people like Jo at Kungfu Kitchen, Nandana at Clay’s, Keti at Geo Café and Kamal at his eponymous new restaurant. People who believe in the narrative power of food, of telling stories, of welcoming you into their home with the food they grew up with.
“I’m glad customers don’t just come here for an English breakfast.”
“We don’t do one! We do that stuff in a baguette but we don’t do a full English. We sell an Egyptian breakfast instead” (it comes with falafel and shakshuka, by the way, and it sounds excellent).
“What should I order next time I come here?”
“I know we’ve sold out, but our falafel are really good. And you should try the beef livers.” I made a mental note: the menu says they come ‘all the way from Alexandria’.
The sojuk had a wonderful building heat, so I wanted something cooling and I’d left room for dessert so we ordered a couple more things. Again, the owner apologised that they would take a while but by that point I thought the prospect of another half an hour in Cairo Café was a positive boon, so I wasn’t complaining. First to arrive was a cooling drink which had rather been misplaced in the “Fresh juices” section, a drink made with yoghurt, milk and honey. I absolutely adored this – as a dairy fiend it’s right up my alley at the best of times, but what I loved about it the most was how light and delicate it was. It didn’t have that thick stubbornness a lassi can have, and the sweetness was almost floral, complementing things rather than beating you round the head. To add to the random pricing, this was four pounds but, for me, worth every penny.
Last of all, I had to try the sakalans. This took a while to prepare and I can honestly say I’ve never had anything like it – a warm, almost-crunchy baguette split lengthways and crammed with cream, honey and huge wedges of halva. I’ve loved halva for years – ironically, since my mother brought some back from a holiday in Egypt, and as a huge fan of sesame in all its forms this dish had a huge amount to appeal to me. The idea of sticking it in a sandwich had never occurred to me, but eating this I was delighted that it had occurred to someone. Zoë was a little less convinced by it, I suspect, but she was also either fuller, or more restrained, than me.
Our bill, for all that food and an hour and a half of serene, unmitigated delight, came to forty-five pounds, not including tip. I felt a compulsion to keep telling the owner how much I’d enjoyed everything, but eventually I realised I’d have to button it and stop thanking him. Besides, I have the opportunity to tell all of you instead, so it’s not as if I’m going to get an ulcer from suppressing anything. I went on my way absolutely convinced that I would be back, and positively evangelical about making sure some other people went there too.
My overwhelming feeling when I discover somewhere like Cairo Café is to think: how lucky are we in Reading? How lucky are we that despite the best efforts of the unholy trinity of Messrs Brock, Sykes and Horton-Baker, that cabal of the unimaginative, avaricious and dim-witted, people still come here to open their restaurants and their cafés, to battle away against the misguided focus of our public bodies and the bleak indifference of our local media. How lucky are we that we still get a gem like Cairo Café defying all of that inertia and doing their damnedest to get a foothold in this town?
It reminds me, many years ago, of another café only a few doors down from where Cairo Café is now: Cappuccina Café, a modest little place serving banh mi and pasteis de nata. I visited it, I rather liked it, I wrote a review and within a month it was closed. It remains, even now, one of the Reading closures I’m saddest about – more so, in a funny kind of way, than all the Mya Lacartes and Dolce Vitas out there; everybody misses them, but when I think of Cappuccina Café I sometimes think it’s mourned by me and me alone. I’m determined to do my bit to ensure that Cairo Café doesn’t go the same way. So please, go there and try the food: it has, I think, a little spark of magic. And heaven knows, we all need to keep that alive in Reading, as much as we possibly can.
Cairo Café – 8.3
13 West Street, Reading, RG1 1TT