Openings

A new Egyptian restaurant in Brookline

Written by Bob Batz Jr. on

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Just opened in Brookline: Isis Cafe.

Egyptian food, in a little storefront previously occupied by Brookline Produce.

I was frustrated that, right now, contrary to what its website says, the cafe closes too early for me to get there during the week. But I wound up delighted that my family and I went Saturday, because we were able to get the Saturday Special:

Tastes of just about everything on the menu for $15.

What a fun feast it was.

We arrived just after a kid's birthday party, the family members who run the place told us, before warmly leading us into the dining room, funkily furnished with mis-matched tables and chairs and couches.

Our young server offered to help us through the menu, but my wife, who got to spend some time in Egypt on a journalism fellowship, already knew several things she wanted to try, including Kushari Masri, a classic Eqyptian street food of macaroni, lentils and tomatoes, as well as the hibiscus tea, Karkade.

We ordered a glass of that and two Saturday Specials for us and, for the kid, a bowl of Lentil Soup and a Tamiya, or falafel appetizer, and a fruit smoothie. We also cracked open bottles of beer and wine we brought.

Soon, they started bringing out the food.
Round One, depicted above, was the falafel and pita with a bonus Samboosa, or ground beef-filled filo pie.

Each of us adults got a plate with four little bowls of appetizers: Clockwise from top: Tomato with Vita Cheese; Baba Ghanough, or eggplant dip; Yoghurt with Cucumbers; and Besara, or fava bean dip with dill -- all of which were deliciously tangy. I really enjoyed the Vita cheese, which our server described as like feta only creamier.

Round Two, depicted below, were four more veg or mostly veg dishes, from top, clockwise: Bamia, or stewed okra in tomato sauce; pungent chunks of eggplant; Lobia, or black-eyed peas; and Molokheya, or stewed Egyptian mallow leaves (very unusual to us, and we were surprised to find a tiny shrimp in each bowl).

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Right behind that, for Round Three, we each got a plate with a pile of rice pilaf and a pile of the Kushari Masri, or pasta and lentils, plus a bowl of house-made pickles, including sour pink smiles of turnip. I dug into that so heartily that I neglected to photograph it.

One mother of the restaurant family, who stopped to talk to and tickle my son, said that her mother made the pickles from an heirloom recipe.

Then came out Round Four, depicted below: From top, clockwise: Kouftam, or beef and lamb meatballs; Pan-Seared Chicken Thigh cooked with yogurt and orange spice; Kebab of beef; and a rice-stuffed grape leaf with a rice-stuffed cabbage leaf.

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"I never at this much dinner in my LIFE," exaggerated my 5-year-old, who gamely tried a taste of just about everything, too.

We weren't sure whether to hope for a Round Five with all the interesting desserts (including coconut bread pudding and farina cake with syrup) or not. But by that time, it was 6 p.m., and we could tell that the family wanted to close up and get out of there.

We told them we'd be back, and we meant it.

I followed up yesterday with a phone chat with the owner, Ahmed Fathi, a really nice young guy who'd helped wait on us. Turns out, he's almost 24 and a student at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, where he's pursuing a degree in hotel and restaurant management.

Three of his sisters and his father moved from their native Egypt to the U.S. about 15 years ago, and when Mr. Fathi and his other siblings and mother joined them here about five years ago, they settled in Brookline with his sister Moory. She helps out at the restaurant, as does his sister Amy and his brother, Ash. Their mom, Salwa Youssef, does all the cooking in the kitchen. 

“We want to introduce Egyptian food to everybody in Pittsburgh," says Mr. Fathi, who's been adjusting the menu and the hours to fit customer feedback. One of the hit dishes is the Egyptian mallow, which they have to import.

"We’ve been getting a lot of good feedback and good reviews."

They've got the menu where they want it enough to get real ones printed, with a mix of meat and veg dishes, and plan to continue the Saturday Special for at least a while, and will continue to write in other daily specials on the chalkboard, too. (For Valentine's, they're offering a $30 dinner-for-two.)

Right now, they're open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tues. through Sat. and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, but starting in March, they'll shift more towards later dinner hours.

Other changes are on the way, such as a better sign.

But you can find Isis Cafe at 815 Brookline Blvd. (15226) in this just-south-of-the-Liberty Tubes city neighborhood, which has many food charms. So many, in fact, that you can sign up for a food tour there run by 'Burgh Bits and Bites. I can't wait to talk with the company's owner, Sylvia McCoy, about this new place.

Coming up on Sunday, April 28, is the Taste of Brookline. Thanks to one of its organizers, Keith Knecht, for telling me about Isis Cafe.

Bob Batz Jr. photos

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