Eating Out: Not just like mummy made

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The Independent Culture
The Valley of the Kings

Elizabetta Hotel, 162 Cromwell Road, London SW5 0TT

Tel: 071-370 4282. Open Mon-Sat for dinner only from 6pm. Last orders 10.30pm

Average pounds 12- pounds 15 without wine. All major cards accepted.

THE TAXI-DRIVER I talked to a few hours earlier was the most encouraging voice on the subject. I told him where I was having dinner and asked him whether he'd ever taken anyone there. He said he hadn't. 'But you got to look on the positive side, that's what I say. I mean, there aren't many Egyptian restaurants in London.'

That, I suppose, is true. And after a night out at I can't say I'm entirely surprised.

I had pictured it as a bit more of a lark: dim lamps against walls moulded to look like the inside of the Great Pyramid, painted from floor to ceiling with angular, one-dimensional umber-skinned Ancient Egyptian handmaidens with big kohl-rimmed eyes.

The nearest I got to this was my angular alabaster-skinned former PA with big kohl- rimmed eyes, with whom I was hoping to catch up on the last few months' gossip about the movie business.

The restaurant is in the basement of the Elizabetta Hotel in the Cromwell Road, next door to the Cromwell Hospital, famous for its bullet-proof glass and the little bedrooms off all the wards for the invalids' bodyguards.

opened earlier this year, and attracted a certain amount of humorous publicity for its costumes. Heavy-

lidded waiters and waitresses were photographed smiling enigmatically in stripey Ancient Egyptian outfits reminiscent of Carry On Up The Mummy's Tomb.

It was therefore a double disappointment to go down the fawn-carpeted stairs into a very ordinary hotel dining room with a few Egyptian Tourist Board-type posters, and to find that the costume had been abandoned under the critical barrage.

In fact, when we arrived soon after eight the place was deserted. When the very nice bespectacled Egyptian waitress appeared she was wearing an ordinary black skirt and a white blouse. I explained that I had booked, and we were shown to a table. Four ladies arrived at about nine, and two men shortly after that, but otherwise no one.

Initially, things seemed to be going quite well. We ordered two glasses of the house wine - something with a rather lurid label from northern Italy - a jug of water, and tucked into the 'appetisers'. I resisted the foul medames - Egyptian beans seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil - on the grounds that they were probably funnier to read about than to eat, and chose baba ghanoug, koshri and bessara.

Baba ghanoug is an aubergine puree with sesame paste and garlic, and with the fresh warm pitta bread was very good. Koshri, a pasta dish with brown lentils, rice and fried onions and a hot tomato sauce, was also excellent. My companion had her doubts about the bessara - a pot of what could have been flavoured greenish fat, described as an 'ancient recipe of ground beans cooked with herbs and spices' - but for me it brought back memories of cold mornings eating toast and dripping in Oxford market. I quite enjoyed it.

I then made my first big mistake. I should have stayed with the starters: there was moussaka and stuffed vine leaves and the Egyptian equivalent of Greek salad, with white cheese, tomato, cucumber, spring onions, mint, lemon and olive oil, and I am sure all of them would have been quite all right.

Instead, the waitress suggested that I might like a bowl of karaweh, calves' foot soup, and I said I might. I did not. It tasted like washing-up water, and the main courses we chose were not a great deal better. My companion very sensibly skipped the soup, but lighted on samak bolty, 'St Peter's fish marinated with lemon juice, garlic, spices and fried', which she said tasted quite dry. I asked for tagen tourley (Nefertitti), a lamb stew with vegetables, and thought the lamb - the manager assured me it was 'English baby lamb' - quite tough enough to have been mutton. It came with plain rice and a green salad, neither of which was special.

By this time the brittle chatter about the film business had given way to gloomier ponderings about the meaning of life, and not even some good puddings, led by mahalabia, milk and cornflour with raisins and pistachios, or the baklava could really rescue the evening.

We had now been joined by the powerfully-built manager and his equally massive cook. They seemed to catch our mood, and pondered gloomily themselves about the huge Egyptian population of London and why they weren't all there, and how ready they were to provide what people wanted if only they could discover what it was. The menu was changing all the time, and they would continue to change it until they got it right.

I developed what I thought was quite a diplomatic argument about how you had to adapt national dishes to suit the taste of the consumer, like cooking the lamb a bit longer or buying tenderer meat, and we talked about the possibility of making the place a bit more Disnegyptian. They nodded a lot, and were very charming, but in the course of that my order for some kind of rose-petal tea I'd been told was very good got mixed up with an order for two pots of mint tea, and it seemed easier to drink that and agree to have another stab at the bright evening of media chatter in a few months' time.

I don't like to sound a softie when other food critics think nothing of reducing whole kitchens full of grown men to tears, but I still believe could make a go of it. Umber-skinned handmaidens up the walls, obviously, but a bit more thought about the English idea of an Egyptian feast and they could make a lot of money.-

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