Order a whole fish on a weekday afternoon and Mostafa Khalil—walled behind boxes of pastries—leaves his cash-register pulpit and strides to the front window. He examines the iced display, bending over to check a gill or two for freshness. The selection made, he ferries your trophy into the back, dusts it with sumac and sea salt, and rapidly grills it to blackness amid leaping flames, like a pharaonic Paul Prudhomme. Today the best fish is sea trout, but tomorrow it may be striped bass, mullet, or even salmon. Assembled on a series of plates, the meal ($12) is enough for two.
Bahry is an Egyptian fish market and café, a few tables on a side street off the Arab enclave of Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge. There are little statues of lobsters and line fish strewn around the room, and one wall is plastered with incongruous water imagery: seaside snaps of Alexandria, a panorama of Niagara Falls, and Flipper completing an exuberant dive. Your fish du jour (sorry, no dolphin) comes with a stack of warm pitas, a saucer of tahini, and a salad of lettuce and tomato that has sometimes been vinaigretted a little too long. There’s also a choice of rice or chips. If these were chips in the British sense, you’d probably pick the rice. Instead they turn out to be homemade potato chips, some cut thick and some thin, dusted with cumin and cayenne. The alternating snap and squish as you chew them provides a rhythm track to a satisfying meal.
One Saturday afternoon fish lovers jam the room as we invade with enough diners to try every variety. Croaker is my favorite, a modest-sized and flavorful specimen with a thin, crisp skin, but mullet—dark, sleek, and strongly flavored—also has its adherents. Pink porgy, flashing a set of short, ugly teeth, is pleasantly coarse-textured, while red snapper is rich and oily. Finally, there’s sea bass, mild-tasting and maybe the best deal because of its bulbous size. This afternoon the fish are deep fried with a light dusting of flour and spices—still delicious, but not as good as grilled.
Of course, if you order the whole-fish dinner, you’ll miss lots of other stuff. Fish and chips ($8) includes four flounder fillets and the same laudable chips, though the coating is thick and brittle. By contrast, fried calamari has virtually no breading at all; a heaping of sautéed onions, green chiles, and red bell peppers gives it a Creole air. You’ll be missing out if you don’t order a side of baba ganoush ($2). Though it has the expected smoky undertaste, it’s not the unassertive creamy sort that’s been blended with lots of tahini. Rather, a vinegar tang, lingering burn, and sprinkling of telltale seeds makes you suspect that the pickle juice from the chiles has been thrown into the blender along with the eggplant. Among the relentlessly aquatic choices—which included live crabs one recent evening—odd man out is the sausage sandwich. The pita is stuffed with slender links of a merguez cousin known in parts of the Middle East as mekanik. Expect it to taste strongly of beef and hot desert winds. Just don’t expect it to fix your car.