“What’s the best seafood restaurant in town?” I ask a trusted friend and British expat who moved to Sharm el Sheikh many years ago. Without pausing, she answers “Fares. The one in the old market is busier, but the one in El Mercato is slightly better – either way, it’s the best.”
Egypt isn’t known for its food. In fact, its cuisine is known as an amalgamation of other flavours and recipes from around the region, with no stand-out dish. A typical breakfast is foul medames, a heavy bowl of broad beans in a thick sauce. It’s tasty, but one serving is a bit like swallowing a brick. So my rule when in Egypt is generally to stick to Lebanese food. After two nights at Fairuz, a good, but expensive Lebanese restaurant in Sharm el Sheikh’s busy Na’ama Bay, I’m desperate for fresh seafood away from the tourist zone where men call out, “Hey spicy baby.”
A taxi driver drops us off just outside the old market where business is suffering from a steep drop in tourism. The Arab Spring has had a knock-on effect, with a new president limiting checks and balances, and instituting controversial laws, causing protests twice a week even in this seaside town known for its diving. Here, the men hawking jewellery and embroidered shirts do the soft-sell, instantly discounting prices to lure the handful of tourists.
We spot Fares instantly on a brightly lit corner. Tourists and locals crowd the place and two steps in, I’m eyeing up dishes.
I see aubergine salads but none on the menu. “Behind the counter, at the back,” directs the waiter. My companion knows better than to stop me as I make a bee-line for the back. There are trays of soft, slow-roasted eggplant mixed with garlic, parsley, onions and tomatoes, and plum tomatoes stuffed with garlic and parsley, chickpeas, and a beetroot paste. I order the eggplant and tomatoes and head back to choose the fish.
The salads are the kind one expects to get in Israel or Italy – places known for juicy, ripe tomatoes, and a judicious use of fresh herbs. This is not the kind of food that springs to mind amid the desert.
I start browsing the classics – grilled calamari, and baked sea bass, but I have to try the fish tagine. And then I spot the red herring – lobster fajitas. Yep, lobster fajitas, in Egypt, and we’re not even at a Western restaurant. At $16, the bargain is too hard to pass up, never mind the “wow” factor.
After our second round of aubergine, a small, deep crock brimming with chunks of white fish, calamari, and prawns in a light tomato sauce riddled with translucent diced onions is set down on the table. The waiter turns it upside down to fill the plate, and I can’t even wait for it to cool before trying it. One bite reveals the uniqueness of the sauce – the saffron. It’s enough to be present, but not overpowering. It’s a sauce I could eat by the spoonful, and indeed, attempt to. I’d never have expected it, nor thought of putting the two together, but it’s a brilliant pairing.
The lobster fajitas arrive in typical fashion, on a sizzling platter of caramelised onions and peppers. While the actual lobster portions are fairly small, I can’t fault the veggies. It’s as if the chef did time in one of the local TGI Friday’s restaurants long enough to master the American/Mexican favourite.
Stuffed and sated, we finish with a typical Egyptian glass of lemon juice, topped with strawberries. We think we’ve ordered Fares’ best, and are already plotting what we’d order again, or try on our next visit. Our only regret is it’s our last night and with no idea of our return to Sharm, we may have no choice but to try these recipes at home.
Fares Seafood Restaurant
Old Market +2 069 366 30 76
El Mercato +2 069 366 35 55