At Chef Samir’s Egyptian Treasures, a serene landscape painting of sailboats on the Nile adorns a back wall while a banner featuring colorful drawings of Egyptian royalty, gods and hieroglyphics winds its way around the restaurants walls, mirroring images found on the thick vinyl table-covers made to look like papyrus. Magnificent, gaudy chandeliers with crystals and gold hang from above; Egyptian music fills the air. My friend Moriah, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Egypt, recognizes some of the music from car rides with her baba.
Chef Samir Shaltout opened his brick-and-mortar on the east side of Greensboro nearly six years ago, shortly after moving from New Jersey — he came to the United States from Cairo in 1990, and brought his family recipes with him.
“This is all from my mom,” Shaltout said. “The tastes from home are still in my mouth and I try to bring it out of memory to share it with Americans.”
He brought his country’s history to share, too. Intricate designs throughout the restaurant allude to the architecture of mosques and framed photographs of Egyptian temples and statues, like the falcon god Horus in the courtyard of Edfu Temple, decorate walls painted the vibrant colors they once wore but which the centuries have washed away. Mustafa Kamil, an Egyptian lawyer, journalist and nationalist remembered for his fervent advocacy for Egyptian independence from Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, watched over our particular booth.
“The images of things like the pyramids would be here for tourists, but this is simultaneously authentic because a lot of places my family takes me and their other guests to look like this in wealthier tourist areas, but this is not what their everyday restaurant looks like,” Moriah said.
The food, however, is deeply authentic.
“This is exactly what I grew up eating and I don’t think people always understand that,” she said. “This feels like home to me, not just a restaurant experience.”
Sesame seeds garnishing the falafel was the first tell that we were in for the real deal, according to Moriah. The falafel arrived atop romaine and purple cabbage on a long, divided plate with stuffed grape leaves and moussaka, a combination of fried eggplant, sweet pepper, garlic, onions, vinegar and crushed tomato. I don’t think it’s a particularly special dish and am likely to try the fried cauliflower next time or go with another eggplant dish I know I love — baba ghanoush. Chef Samir’s thinly sliced calf liver marinated in garlic, cumin and vinegar looked like a more daring choice for meat lovers looking to branch out.[pullquote]Learn more at chefsamirshaltout.com and visit at 4212 West Wendover Avenue (GSO).[/pullquote]
What I can without a doubt recommend is ordering the tahini, a condiment made from toasted, ground and hulled sesame seeds, to accompany the falafel instead of hummus. Most Egyptians do so, according to Moriah, and select tahini in just about every context Americans choose hummus. Unlike nut butters, though, tahini is slightly bitter. If you like to balance out with sweetness during your meals, spring for the cold hibiscus tea called karkadeh instead of a sweetened tea. It’s bold, fuschia coloring won me over the lure of options like guava, tamarind and mango juices.
Egyptian staples like koshary, an immensely popular lunchtime street food in Cairo often considered the national dish, are all over the menu. It’s one of the favorite food’s of Moriah’s baba, a mixture of rice, macaroni and lentils topped with lightly spiced tomato sauce, crispy fried onion and chickpeas. The menu boasts several types of whole fish, but beware of bones and expect an intense fishy taste. If scales are not your delight, order the breaded and baked white fish filet with a buttery, garlic-touched white sauce served with rice and a salad (think fattoush without the bread).
While some cool days are still ahead, it’s worth nothing the number of wholesome soups, stews and tagines. One notable soup is Egyptian mulu’khia, made by finely chopping the leaves of a plant by the same name with garlic, coriander and other spices and cooking it in chicken broth. This soup is slimy like the inside of okra and is typically eaten with bread, pita or over rice. It’s tasty, but your experience will come down to whether you can enjoy the mucilaginous texture.
Adventurous choices aside, Chef Samir’s lengthy menu offers something for everyone: a host of small hot and cold appetizers for mezze-style sharing; distinctive vegan and vegetarian options like some of the tagines and the meat-free koshary; classic Mediterranean dishes familiar to Americans like meat kabobs and shawarma; more than ample options for the seafood lover in your group; and a children’s menu featuring spaghetti, chicken fingers, hamburgers and fries, just in case.
The dessert menu offers baklava, a sugary cheese pastry called kunafa, creamy puddings and umm ali, a comforting combination of phyllo dough, milk and sugar baked in the oven and served hot topped with walnuts, almonds and cinnamon. Homemade hot chocolate and Egyptian or American style coffee will do for final orders, too. Egyptian coffee is similar to Turkish in that ultra-fine grounds settle at the bottom of a cup; Moriah’s aunts insist on reading her leftover coffee grounds when she visits them abroad.
Though they weren’t sitting in our booth at Chef Samir’s, for a few minutes at least, they felt an ocean closer, their joy beaming through the brilliant colors around us, their heartbeats throbbing in the music of their homeland.