Cilantro, "Appetite for Life"
by Heba Fatteen Bizzari
Cilantro is one of those very newly introduced cafs in Egypt. It has proved its success by creating a closed environment that is characterized by simplicity, elegance, cleanliness, and a modern atmosphere. Though its prices tend to be on the high side, there is nevertheless always a crowd.
The notion of coffee shops, known as ahwas in Egypt is widespread. There is one on almost every street, at every corner, especially in the old districts of the city. The ahwas are usually open, loud, social, inexpensive, democratic and masculine. The ahwa in itself tends not only to be crowded, but also very noisy. People are shouting back and forth, and in most instances there is a radio or television playing loudly in the background at all times, regardless of the fact that, most of the time, no one is paying any attention to it.
Traditionally in the Egyptian culture, based on Islamic teachings and practices that separate women from men, the ahwas and most public places were only considered mens areas. Therefore the ahwas have always played a role in Egypt with its collectivist society. The ahwa becomes the link that brings all the men together at any time of the day to chat, engage in games such as backgammon, or dominos, and exchange stories or news. Men at the traditional ahwas usually engage in cross sectional interactions, meaning that they do not stick to a particular group of acquaintances, but rather mingle, which with time promotes strong social ties within a wider social network.
Today, the new "modern" coffee shops like Cilantro, that make their way into the more upscale areas of Cairo, are modeled on American or European cafes. They are very different than the old traditional coffee shops. They are enclosed, quiet, expensive, and elite and they are no longer segregated, since they provide a place where both sexes can mix socially and safely. People also seem to no longer engage in a cross sectional manner but rather stick to their group of acquaintances.
Cilantro aims to counteract the real outside world of Cairo by creating an artificial environment that is class-bound, attracting a very specific type of clientele. Namely, they are representatives of the Egyptian upper class, as well as foreigners living in town. Cilantro symbolizes an escape for its clientele to turn to when the reality of the Cairean scene becomes too much to deal with. Their convenient hours, from early in the morning till late at night, allows its clientele to visit whenever they wish.
Cilantro's entrance is from a relatively crowded street. However, the caf is kept separate from the outside by the glass front, that places clear boundaries to the shop, and serves as a barrier between the two worlds. By maintaining a highly clean and calm atmosphere inside, it attracts a specific type of clientele that finds comfort in their separation from the noise and chaos on the street.
The best thing in Cilantros setting, especially that glass front, is that it makes you feel that youre still in Egypt, but the clean part of Egypt, which we see rarely. I come here almost everyday for my coffee break, and it just boosts the rest of the day for me, said Shahinaz Kalil, a 25 year-old consultant.
The decorations in Cilantro are kept to the bare minimum. The furniture consists of the two basic, contrasting colors. The place is furnished with small, cozy sofa-like seats along with other tables and chairs. It is provided with dim but sufficient lighting that is adjusted depending on the time of day. It makes you feel at home, relaxed and comfortable. To tell you the truth I feel more comfortable here than in my home, she added.
There is a glass fronted refrigerator that contains almost all items listed on the menu, which include namely sandwiches that are done with a twist, such as cheddar with fruit chutney, or pasta with pesto and sun dried tomatoes, freshly squeezed juices, and selected bottles of water. Other items that are also sold at the caf and that do not require fridges, such as pastry, coffee and an assorted array of coffee cups and percolators, are on display in very simple wooden shelves, either beside the fridges, or behind the counter that holds the cash register. The bakery includes freshly baked delights like foccacia rosemary bread, cinnamon rolls and baguettes. Setting a slightly healthier trend in Cairos culinary habits, Cilantro also offers low-calorie options, like the Vegetarian Special and the Ratatouille with Mozzarella.
But first and foremost, coffee is Cilantros raison dtre. Italian Illy coffee beans are individually inspected, and water softeners, high-tech bean grinders and temperature gauges leave nothing to chance. In addition to your basic cappuccinos, espressos, lattes and mochas, Cilantro offers
some creative coffee concoctions as well. Espresso Romano, for example, comes with a zest of lemon; Caffe Nutella is topped with a layer of rich chocolate sauce, whipped cream and nuts; Caffe Chestnut comes with a dollop of whipped cream and a hefty serving of chestnut sauce.
For a cool, refreshing caffeine fix, the Eis Caffe is the ultimate indulgence, consisting of an espresso served in a tall glass with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of coffee beans. All coffees can be ordered decaffeinated upon request.
It is important to note, however, that it is not solely the foods served that attract customers, but also their presentation and the waiters employed at the caf.
For many visitors to Cairo, a visit to Cilantro's will be a breath of fresh air amid this cities boisterous existence. Cairo is a city alive, swelled by a tide of humanity, packed with spirit, hope and the endeavors of millions of people going about their daily affairs, so it is no wonder that a quiet corner might prove very popular.
In Cairo, Cilantro's original location is in Zamalek's Baehler Mansions, the vintage 1920s building on 26th of July Street which also houses the well known restaurant and a Tour Egypt favorite, La Bodega. A second location, across the river at the WTC, exhibits a somewhat different vibe.
Modern furnishings, including aqua blue and gray walls, matt hardwood floors, marble tables and steel chairs, make this coffee shop feel more like a high-class bubble lounge. A well-stocked magazine rack offers every kind of printed publication, in both Arabic and English.
The most recent addition to the chain is the AUC (American University in Cairo) location just meters away from the universitys Greek Campus.
To make the best possible use of a restricted and potentially cramped space, Cilantro hired British interior design firm Fitch, which specializes in restaurants. Local designer Mona Hussein also contributed to the decor, which relies on a color scheme combining metallic gray and black with a splash of color here and there.
Recently, Cilantro has also opened a Maadi location at 17 Road 216, Delga.
Despite their distinctness in terms of look and atmosphere, the two new Cilantro locations replicate the successful culinary formula of the original branch, providing a delicious selection of hot and cold sandwiches, pastas and desserts.