Soap Ogling


Kennedy Boulevard zigzags south of Journal Square through a zone of elegant brick apartment buildings, wood-frame houses with rambling porches, a Jesuit college, and Morgan Seafood Restaurant. In spite of its vaguely Brit moniker, Morgan is an Egyptian spot specializing in some of the best and cheapest seafood you’ll find in the metropolitan area, done in the pan-Mediterranean style of the ancient port of Alexandria.

Of the two dining rooms, the plainer looks into a kitchen, where three cooks hover over bubbling skillets and a blackened grill shooting flames. The other boasts extensive pharaonic bric-a-brac and a TV that seems perpetually tuned to Arabic soaps with English subtitles. The content is surprisingly racy. In one episode, a graybeard with roving hands comforts a sobbing young bride who’s just broken up with her husband. On our first visit, proprietor Rafat Hamed—a vigorous mustachioed man in a striped shirt and chinos—waited on our table, popping into the kitchen to oversee the grilling and frying.

Morgan Seafood is one of the most straightforward restaurants you’ll ever have the pleasure to patronize. The focus is strictly on seafood, most of it whole fish that are East Coast–caught and intermittently available. The choices on the short list readily sort themselves into two categories: fish best grilled and fish best fried. Hamed is likely to nudge you toward the best method of preparation. In the “best grilled” category there’s usually a porgy ($8 per pound, averaging one pound). The skin arrives nicely blackened, with the flaky and coarse-textured white flesh reeking of smoke. Don’t neglect to swipe your pita through the cooking moisture that accumulates at the bottom of the serving platter. A great choice in the “fried” category is whiting. Looking for all the world like a headless barbershop quartet, dusted here and there with a spice mixture that contains ground coriander, salt, and pepper, the platter of four succulent swimmers makes a shareable entrée that will set you back only about $12, and the quality is every bit as good as at midtown Greek joints, where a similar collection, sans tasty spice powder, is likely to cost four or five times as much.

Strikingly, the fish come with no sides; Alexandrians love the naked fish, every scale and sinew, here accompanied only by fresh lime wedges, Tabasco, and sometimes the pickling juice from the marvelous eggplant appetizer. Anyway, the only available sides are french fries and rice. The fries are wretched, but you might order them if only for their carb content. The rice, oddly enough, is a dirty rice that would be at home in any Cajun-Creole establishment. More desirably, there are four appetizers, which do just fine warding off hunger while you’re waiting for your fish. The perfunctory salad consists of iceberg and unripe tomatoes, but the baba ghanoush (identified patriarchally on the menu as “papa ganoush”) is splendid. Like the kind you find in Israeli places, it tastes more of mayo than tahini.

But the best thing on the menu, apart from the whole fish, is the aforementioned eggplant appetizer, thick slices inundated with garlic-gobbed white vinegar. The restaurant is open till midnight and fills up late in the evening with Egyptian men, who eat plates of fried shrimp, shell-on ($8), and stay to ogle the soaps.