The first time I ate koshary, Egypt's national dish, was in a cacophonous sector of Cairo amid the shouts of merchants, the continuous beeps of car horns and Amr Diab's dulcet voice blasting from transistor radios. A chap in a soda-jerk cap handed me a white bowl heaped with a mix of black lentils, chickpeas, rice, macaroni and spaghetti in a tangy tomato sauce topped with fried onions. A liberal dollop of shatta, a hot sauce that's arguably more complex to make than the koshary itself, gave the dish its legs. I absolutely loved it, so much so that I ordered another bowl of the savory slap of starch, much to the dismay of our tour guide who warned against Cairo Cramp – a more, shall we say, robust strain of Delhi Belly. The stomach held up just fine, but I never did try the dish again until 20-odd years later when I paid a visit to Makani on I-Drive.
At first blush, the koshary ($14.99) was very much as I had remembered. Or so I thought. A few bites revealed the absence of chickpeas. And where was the shatta? Without it, the dish is a zingless mix of carbs.
It did, however, look great – much like the restaurant itself. Makani's owners inherited the space from Turkish restaurant Logma (who inherited it from Sugarcanes Rum Bar) and gave it a proper blinging out. The sheer number and variety of chandeliers and lighting fixtures in this restaurant is reminiscent of the showroom at Lightstyle of Orlando. There are modern furnishings, art nouveau paintings and framed photographs of seemingly every Egyptian celeb, including an Omar Sharif wall.
The Alexandria-born actor must've surely indulged in kebda ($16.99), an Alexandrian street food specialty and one typically served in sandwich form. Here, the pan-fried beef liver marinated in a host of spices is served with short-grain rice all fluffed and vermicellied. If you didn't know it was liver, you'd think they were just incredibly luscious morsels of beef.
Hawawshi ($17.99 are hard not to like – the baked pita pockets of seasoned mince resemble quesadillas, but their flavor is more in line with empanadas or samosas. They're served with perfect French fries (chips, really).
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
You'll notice prices here aren't exactly commensurate with street-food fare. (Makani's rent can't be cheap, that's for sure.) In fact, an 18 percent gratuity is automatically tacked on to bills to counter the effects of tip-averse tourists.
The $65.99 price tag for the mixed grill might seem dear, but considering you get half a grilled chicken and two kebabs each of charred ground kofta, the softest beef and chicken shish, and a couple of plush lamb chops, it doesn't seem so bad. And it'll easily feed four. A similar pile of protein at Café 34 Istanbul just a few doors down will run you $64.95, and it won't be served atop a golden hotbox with glowing embers keeping the meat warm. Yes, aesthetics are taken seriously here.
After attacking the meat with ravenous zeal, the molokhia ($24.99) – an earthy, herbaceous and wee bit slimy stew fashioned from the leafy greens of the corchorus olitorius (or Jew's mallow) and anointed with garlic oil – was much loved by all in my party. It came with rice and a grilled half-chicken, both of which were largely shunned in favor of just slurping the stew.
BTW: Potables of the boozy kind aren't served at Makani, but there are fresh fruit juices (watermelon, strawberry, lemon) offered at cocktail prices ($10). Those were enjoyed alongside bites of basbousa ($9.99), a semolina cake drizzled in a sweet citrusy syrup that wowed the gathered. It wasn't Saharan in the least. Me, I was partial to the konafa ($9.99), its crisp strands of filo enveloping a cheesy block.
At Makani, a restaurant celebrating Egypt's culinary contributions, there's something for all tastes – savory or sweet. The way I see it, we all got our just deserts.
– This story appears in the Nov. 6, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.