Kamala: A fresh take on Asian fusion

A certain skepticism has settled over this column about Cairo’s hotel restaurants in recent months. Some, to be fair, are wonderful. Birdcage at the Intercontinental, and Massala at Karvin come to mind. But many others, perhaps most, provide overpriced, underwhelming, heavy dining experiences.

Talked into visiting Kamala, the new Asian fusion restaurant at the Conrad recently, I therefore prepared for another disappointment. The results, I am pleased to say, were a pleasant surprise. Kamala is a fresh, exciting, truly quality new addition to Cairo’s dining scene.

Kamala presents a fusion concept for Asian food, drawing upon the culinary traditions of Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In its first month of operations, Kamala is the result of a restaurant makeover at the Conrad that also brought about the new Oak Grill steak restaurant. As you’d expect from a new entrant at the upper tier of Cairo’s dining universe, the interior is sophisticated and well appointed. The music is funky, and understated. There’s a dramatic bar in one corner, a massive open kitchen in the other where you watch a bevy of chefs stirring, frying and sautéing with abandon.

The menu is a virtual highlight tour of south-east Asian cuisine: there’s pad thai from Thailand, various curried udang soups from Indonesia, dim-sum from China. The menu is infused with fresh herbs: coriander, mint, basil. The danger of fusion cuisine is that it collapses into one bland, undifferentiated mass. How many restaurants have we seen that claim to prepare Chinese and Indian cuisine, only to do neither well. At Kamala, however, the effect is just the opposite. Kamala’s dishes are fresh and distinct, enough variety to keep your taste buds guessing, enough coherence not to overwhelm.

We started with a beef salad that was superb; spicy and suffused with fresh herbs. We continued with a seafood sate, pad thai, a green curry that was excellent, and a delightful beef curry. Only in the dessert menu was something lost in translation: one offering promised a “boiled glutinous rice ball.” I’m sure it would have tasted lovely; we simply couldn’t make it past the wording. However, we did try some grilled bananas in mango syrup with ice cream that was delicious.

As you’d expect from any new restaurant, the service was impeccable. Both the hotel’s general manager, as well as the head chef (relocated from Bali a year ago) who established the menu stopped by to see how things were going. Kamala provides an excellent dining experience: lots of flavor, without being overwhelmingly heavy. The restaurant has managed to blend together a wide range of related but distinct tastes. Rather than a cacophony of tastes, Kamala pulls off the experience with aplomb.

Kamala is not the first hotel restaurant to arrive with a flourish. Many, drawing upon the talents of an imported chef, flush with the entrepreneurial success of the opening, and sparkle brightly for some time. Many, however, quickly wither. Training given to resident chefs wears off, old practices are restored, and the buzz of the place diminishes. The challenge for Kamala now is to sustain its excellence into the months ahead.

Details: Conrad Hotel, Corniche Boulaq; open daily: 12-4pm, 7pm-1am; Friday and Saturday open from 1pm to 1am. Tel: 2580 8000. Dinner for two: around LE600

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