Aqaba has an updated menu. Here's our review of it.
This latest Mediterranean entrant parks itself into the heart of an evergrowing hub of culinary choices - Bandra. At a location that already makes people overindulge into radical salads from Bombay Salad Co. and the legendary Biryani in earthen pots from Khan-e-khaas, Cairo Grill must bring their culinary aces to the table in order to make a mark.
Drawing direct inspiration from the popular New York food truck 'Halal Guys', Cairo Grill brings gyro cart food in the form the meat & rice, pita & hummus, shawarma, and a little more. The food is aimed is to be quick takeaway affair just as their tag line goes - Fast, Tasty & Mediterranean. Having sampled almost all of their menu in the past two weeks, the signature dish - New York style Chicken & Rice takes the 'Popular Dish' vote while the lettuce, croutons, chicken induced 'Shawarma Salad' takes my vote for being the heartiest. The contents of the tangy rich white sauce is something of a myth just as it is back in New York. It was mentioned to us that it contains only a little mayonnaise for the sake of consistency while most of it as we inferred should be sour cream coupled with Tahini dressing.
Cairo's shawarma appears well textured on the outside with crisscross grill marks on the pita. The succulent chicken meat ticks all the right boxes, though it's the filling that seems sparse and one gets an immense portion of the pita in each bite and quite less of the inner goodies. The Falafel mixture itself needs a lot of work as the end deep fried product tastes more of a desi imitation with irregular chunks of peas in each bite. On the other hand, their Hummus is impeccable with the right consistency of all ingredients. We ordered the Chicken & Hummus plate and it was finger-licked in no time. The deep fried garlic topping is a nice touch and adds a crunchy dimension to the paste like texture.
Oreo Nachos, the only sweetened attribute is a not so convincing affair of deep fried pita chips sprinkled with a mix of crushed Oreo, Cinnamon and Sugar.
To sum it all, Cairo Grill though fairly new to the scene does pack enough Mediterranean punches in the right places with its hearty portions of salads, flavorful gyro meat and more importantly tempts you every time with the red & white sauce laced Chicken & Rice. The 'Halal Guys' would definitely have to worry about yet another imitation brand if they ever decided to come down to Mumbai.
First thing first, Mediterranean cuisine is different from the Middle East / Lebanese cuisine. It's funny that people from this industry have nowadays started to sell Lebanese food as Greek food and vice-a-versa. So, many of us ignorant puppets will believe in the brand if it's marketed or labelled as 'Authentic'.
Coming from a family where my father worked in the middle east for all his life and me as kid grew up eating shawarma, falafel, khaboos, vinaigrette pickles, baklava and a lot more as a biannual staple for two months of each year, I can decipher a good Lebanese dish from a bad one just by its looks. I'm not the one to get fooled by fancy earth or hummus coming out of a piping bag. Just like me, I'm sure i speak for a lot many of us who have experienced the middle east and feel sorry it's apathetic rendering here in India.
'Ithaka- Veg Lebanese Kitchen' - 'Ithaka' is a Greek island and 'Veg Lebanese Kitchen' of course means Lebanese ! As I said, it's all in the marketing. They even got the restaurant signage done in the pseudo arabic-english typography.
Ithaka sits right on top of 'Riso' - another fully vegetarian eatery, which is flanked by two more vegetarian eateries - Spiceklub & The Rolling Pin. The decor - White floral pattern furnished tall sofas and wooden ceiling planks sets quite a bright and somewhat 90s ambiance. For some reason, they forgot to remove that glass cabin at the extreme corner which looked like it belonged to the back office. Since it was a pre-launch, we were treated to a set menu that showcased the best of what they had to offer. Service began with a bunch of gradient colored mocktails bearing some fancy names and description. Lemon Grass soup and Mushroom Cappuccino were next. Lemon Grass Soup was merely a broth with cut sections of baby corn and carrot. The rustic earthen bowl and spoon presentation did not appeal to me and made quite an uncomfortable experience to go through the bottom of the soup. Bursting the bubble a little soon, but the Mushroom Cappuccino was clearly the hero of the night. Frothy-creamy-rich soup and a lot of warmth is what you get in that large cup. It's the one you would want to be sipping watching a rom-com movie snuggling up with your partner. Full marks to the chef for providing that mini romantic escapade.
Appetizers were next. Batata Harra was presented in a long corn leaf jacket shaped dish. Again, Too cheeky and cliché kind of presentation which just overpowers the beauty of the natural ingredients. This baby potato appetizer is a rather uninspired fare. Too many garnishes and not so flavourful base for the potato makes it a forgettable one. Sesame Zucchini arrived next on a half crescent plate. Where is the zucchini was rather my question ? Wafer thin sliced zucchini base with a coat of sesame and veggie topping was a valiant effort to bring the heroics of a rather underrated vegetable. Turkish Kebabs (made of corn & fenugreek) came covered in an actual jacket of corn. Smooth and melt on the tongue types, though it left us wanting more of it. Portion size was rather minuscule.
The Water Chestnut & Raw Mango Salad - This one left a fire in my entire palate, wind pipe, lungs and intestine. It is guaranteed to leave you with a blazing burp once done. I had earlier managed to secure one of the coconut mocktail by my side, hence got relief from the inferno soon after. Among the salad my vote would definitely go to the 'Mediterranean Mint Salad' which cooled off my palate in an instant with its luscious mint curd dressing which smeared the French beans and cucumber.
Next up was the quintessential 'Hummus' with Pita. Three variations of Hummus were served - Traditional, Harra and Turki. Traditional was bit alkaline, less notes of Tahini and Garlic than I was expecting. No extra virgin olive oil and paprika garnish on top. The 'Harra' version was an interesting one with colours and flavours from pesto mixture. This one should definitely work among the masses. Hummus Turki felt a lot like 'Baba Ganoush' with abundance of kick from the blended black olives.
My set meal had to end abruptly at this point since I was already an hour or more into this dinner and was overlapping my meeting with some carnivorous folks in the suburbs.
As I said in the middle of this post it's a valiant effort, but most of the time too dramatized in presentation and a lot illiberal in portions. Lebanese cuisine is all about generosity and simple plating, which is clearly missing at Ithaka. Hoping that honest feedback is accepted from these pre-launch dinner and the daily production drill which is under-way is much liberal if still cliché.