It’s not often that a restaurant meal is the central focus of my day, but today was an unusual day. I woke up early to take the public bus from Cairo to Alexandria, and arrived at my hotel a little after noon. I hadn’t slept much and was ravenous, so I decided to dive into my Alexandria experience by heading to the Fish Market, a place that had come highly recommended by multiple Egyptian friends.
Based on my time in Morocco, I expected a place with a name like “fish market” to be informal: an outdoor extravaganza by the docks where the fish jumps pretty much directly from the boats onto your plate, hitting the grill and some lemon along the way. Noisy, chaotic, full of life and character…this was my expectation.
Imagine my surprise, then, after a long, hot walk to get there, that the Fish Market was a formal restaurant, with blue and white tablecloths and big plate glass windows that looked out over the Mediterranean. My first instinct was to go elsewhere: I’d been looking for cheap and local, not formal. But I was hungry, and I’d just walked for half an hour in the hot sun…I sat down. The waiters ushered me to a corner table, set for six, next to huge plate-glass windows with a spectacular view of the sea.
Though there was a menu at the Fish Market, it was mostly symbolic. Though it wasn’t the chaotic boatside restaurant of my imagination, it did have the most important similarity: a large display counter, where different kinds of fish and seafood sat half-buried in ice. You could choose your own fish and its method of preparation, and they would bring it to your table made to order.
I had a small crisis at the fish counter. Next to each fish was a small sign indicating the price, but said signs were incomplete. Sea bass was 92 Egyptian pounds (about $15). Was this per fish? Per pound? I hadn’t been planning on spending much money, and no helpful English-speakers were in sight, either in terms of staff or other patrons. This meal looked like it might end up being way more than I could really afford for an ordinary lunch. I finally chose a sea bass that looked like it weighed about a pound, figuring that at least that way I would know the approximate price regardless of the system. I didn’t order any side dishes at the fish counter, because I wasn’t sure how much they’d cost, and I didn’t want to end up paying $30 for my meal.
When I got back to my table I found a bottle of water and a lavish display of mezze, which I hadn’t ordered. It looked beautiful, but I inwardly sighed. I could already see how this whole meal was going to go–amazing food that I couldn’t refuse at a price I didn’t want to pay. I was tired, I was starving, and I’d been walking in the sun for half an hour after a 3 hour bus ride…I was an easy mark and I knew it. But the mezze looked delicious, and I was too tired to argue and too hungry to think about anything else, so I decided to make the most of my unplanned extravagance and dig in.
The mezze were excellent, hummus, baba ganoush, a green salad with tomato, and two dishes I’d never seen before, one made from pureed garlic, the other from fava bean paste. Then my fish came, spanning the length of my plate, and though it needed salt and lemon it was very well prepared.
Finally, the bill came. I had already resigned myself to an inflated price, so was incredibly, pleasantly surprised when the total for the fish, mezze, and bottle of water came to just under 70 Egyptian pounds (about $12). The price of the fish was per kilo, not per pound–remember where you are, Laura! The fabulous mezze were only 10 pounds ($2). I felt like an idiot, both for failing to remember the local measurement system, and for being so negative and suspicious that the place was going to rip me off.
Every now and then, my jaded traveler expectations are wrong. This was one of those times.
So thank you, Fish Market, for exceeding my expectations, and for providing a really excellent meal at a reasonable price. I’m here in Alexandria for several days yet…I will be back.