With birthdays less than two weeks apart, and schedules too busy to navigate, my husband and I have a tradition of having a single celebratory birthday dinner for the both of us, but making sure to go all out on it. Planning for this occasion, we browsed TripAdvisor, aiming for fine dining with a view.
After swiping away a number of Egyptian and Italian restaurants – two cuisines we encounter perhaps a little too frequently to opt for on a special occasion, we stumbled upon Saigon, which describes itself as a “Pan-Asian” restaurant with a “signature twist”. A quick scan of its menu and multiple five-star reviews, along with breathtaking Nile view photographs, clinched the decision for us.
Once we reached the restaurant floor at the Nile City Fairmont, we were instantly able to point out our target. The entrance to Saigon was decorated with understated statuettes and paintings clearly inspired by a variety of art styles from across Asia. The light was pleasantly dim – thankfully not too dim to see the food or menu – and as requested, they found us a table overlooking the Nile.
Upon sitting down, we instantly realised why all the captivating Nile view photos of the restaurants were taken in daylight: in the absence of natural light, the view of the water is too dark to truly enjoy. There are no brightly-lit buildings on the other bank to reflect on the water, and the most visible landmark is a deserted segment of Mamsha Ahl Masr, with a few fountains illuminated in bright, primary colours.
Nevertheless, the wide, high windows gave a spacious effect, and the atmosphere of the restaurant was comfortable and welcoming. The waiter in charge of our tables asked us if we drank alcohol, and when we said that we did not, he recommended us two signature mocktails, the Egyptian Breeze (EGP 94; USD 9) made of orange, pineapple, lemon juice and grenadine, and the Sprite Passion, made of Sprite laced with passion fruit syrup, each of which we ordered one.
Kept company by jazzy covers of as wide a variety of artists as Madonna, the BeeGees, Taylor Swift, and Pink Floyd, we began to chose the different elements that would make up our dinner.
For starters, we ordered the Satay (EGP 190; USD 10), a dish of grilled beef and chicken skewers accompanied by a chunky peanut sauce, as well as a steam basket of prawn Siu Mai (EGP 180; USD 9.5) dumplings served with a garlic and ginger infused soy sauce.
I have personally attempted cooking beef satay skewers at home, so eating these was a somewhat humbling experience. Both the chicken and the beef were cooked to perfection: tender and with a marinade that paired outstandingly well with the depth of flavour in the sauce. The dumplings, too, were packed with flavour, a real treat for any seafood lover.
In the meantime, our mocktails had also arrived, and I am not sure if it was the high quality of the food or the somewhat underwhelming nature of the drinks — particular the Sprite Passion — but they were left without much of a look-in.
Our next order was sushi. As we selected our rolls, we noticed that most of the varieties could only be ordered in eight pieces, a portion that could not be halved, thereby limiting the possibility of trying a variety of rolls without over-ordering in terms of quantity.
When the sushi arrived to our table, the waiter who brought it suggested we take out our cameras as there would be “a show”. We did as we were told, filming a pouring of liquid nitrogen into the underplate beneath our sushi, creating a smoke-like effect. While we found the show amusing enough, but not entirely necessary, we thoroughly enjoyed our Volcano rolls (EGP 220; USD 11.5), our Crispy rolls (EGP 192; USD 10), and our Ebi Tempura rolls (EGP 250; USD 13).
We had initially hoped to order a duck dish for our main course, but the waiter told us that the due to the orders of patrons that came in before us, they were all out. Instead, we ordered the Beef Oyster (EGP 475; USD 25) main dish, which was also recommended by the chef, and a bestseller according to the restaurant’s menu.
This time, the recommendation was a home run. The thin strips of tender beef were in a rich sauce bursting with umami thanks to the inclusion of oyster sauce and shiitake mushrooms. I was personally thrilled that there were bamboo shoots in the mix as well, an ingredient I have been particularly fond of since childhood.
We decided to get dessert for good measure. We initially wanted to try the two most unusual things we found on the menu, but the Sago Coconut was not available due to the absence of a key ingredient that had to be imported. So we opted for the Avocado Ice Cream (EGP 160; USD 8.5) and Crème Brûlée Trio (EGP 160; USD 8.5).
To our surprise, they moved us to a different table where they had laid out the dessert in a celebratory setting and sang us ‘Happy Birthday’. The friendliness of the staff really stood out when they further informed us that the dessert was on the house.
The avocado ice cream was a hit. Though the flavor was subtle, more of an aftertaste, it worked well, and the pastries with delicately spiced warm apple filling complemented it beautifully.
The medley of crème brûlée ramekins need a more nuanced review. They were flavoured with matcha, truffle oil, and black sesame seeds respectively. Tasting the first, I felt like a judge of the Great British Bake-Off who had to break the news to the contestant that they could not taste their unique star ingredient. It tasted simply like a basic crème brûlée.
To us, the second one was a disaster. It may be lack of development in our tastebuds, but truffle oil did not seem to suit the flavour and texture of crème brûlée. Flavour innovations can be great, but as British food critic Jay Rayner asks on the Netflix cooking show The Final Table, “…but does it taste nice?” In this case, it did not. The black sesame ramekin is the only one we felt was actually special.
Having informed them that we found their signature mocktails somewhat underwhelming, they also treated us to a more unique mocktail made of a mix of fresh berries, ginger, chamomile, lime cordial, and tonic water, a drink that was dramatically more interesting and enjoyable than they ones we were offered at the beginning of the night. Unfortunately this drink is not available on the menu, but rather a stroke of creativity from their resident mixologist, Michael, but I do recommend you ask for this combination while you’re there.
All in all, if what you’re after is a truly authentic Asian dining experience, Saigon is not your best bet. In any case, if you were looking for one of those, I would far more likely recommend one of the many hole-in-the-wall mom and pop places tucked away in unexpected corners of Cairo.
But if your target is a Asian-inspired, fusion fine dining experience, I absolutely recommend Saigon. From the welcoming attitude to the staff and their dedication to providing patrons with a pleasant experience, to the quality of the ingredients and the preparation of the dishes, our experience was a decidedly a positive one. I only wish we had gone in daylight.