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Morgan the Egyptian

17 Jan

Morgan Fish Restaurant
2801 John F. Kennedy Blvd
Jersey City.

The temperature was dropping as I left my apartment on the way to the number 2 train. At 72nd Street I switched to the number 1 train. Two stops later I got off at 59th and onto the B train downtown. At 34th, I walked through the tunnel to the PATH train where I found Zio fumbling with a Metrocard/PATH vending machine. He was not clear what it took to gain entry on the PATH. He didn’t know that all it took was his Metrocard. Our next stop was our destination: Jersey City.

One of the several trains it took to get to Jersey City.

This journey was orchestrated by Gerry who, predictably, had chosen a place that would not be easy to get to. We were headed to a seafood place called Morgan Fish Restaurant. I think Morgan being the generic Captain Morgan because it certainly isn’t an Egyptian name and Morgan’s was most certainly an Egyptian establishment and one of the excuses Gerry used to drag us to Jersey City as he said: “To show solidarity with our Egyptian brothers and sisters.”

Zio and I arrived first and besides a woman sweeping the floor and another in the kitchen, we were the only people in Morgan’s. There were fresh fish displayed under a glass counter along with a platter of potato salad and small, pickled eggplants. The woman sweeping offered many friendly smiles, but either didn’t have much to say, or was hesitant because of language difficulties.

The fish of Morgan Fish

A man appeared. He did speak English and also possessed a friendly smile. He pointed to the fish; tilapia, striped sea bass, and branzino. There were also large, full-bodied shrimp and a few flattened pieces of uncooked calamari minus the tentacles. He could prepare the fish, he said, either fried or grilled.

We were hungry and while Gerry and the rest of the Westchester contingent were circling John F. Kennedy Blvd trying to locate Morgan Fish with Mike from Yonkers’ faulty GPS device, Zio and I hoped to get started with the ordering. The menu promised shrimp and/or seafood soup but our male host shook his head sadly: “Soup run out,” he said.

As we were about to order hummus and baba ganoush, (spelled humos and papa ghanoosh on the menu) the rest of the group, Rick included, entered. We found a table suitable for six and our host followed us in to commence with the ordering. We figured hummus, baba ganoush, and some of those tiny eggplants would be a good start. He concurred.

Before he could even get his winter coat off, Eugene was expounding on his Punta Cana vacation where the food at the all-inclusive Bavaro Beach resort was “incredible.” None of us, all stuck in this miserable New York winter, could debate his claim. I shut him off to concentrate on the menu.

Morgan’s menu

It was all simple enough. The question was how much to order and whether the fish should be fried or grilled. We compromised on fried shrimp and calamari along with one fried fish and one grilled. I don’t think we specified which fish should be fried or grilled; the branzino or the sea bass,  and when they arrived, none of us could tell the difference.

Fried shrimp and calamari

Our host brought not one, but two platters each of fried shrimp and fried calamari. Both were lightly crisped; the batter containing a distinctive dusting of some unidentifiable, but clearly Middle Eastern, spice. We picked through the calamari rings and shrimp, but, knowing we had two whole fish to also contend with, went slow and restrained ourselves from devouring them all.

Fish before

The fish was served with a brown (not health food brown) rice and a sofrito-like sauce. We took turns excising the flesh from the bones until all that remained were their skeletons.

Fish after

Once we were finished,  Zio, just making small talk,  mentioned his admiration for the movie, The Black Swan.

“Did you like the dance scenes,” Gerry asked.

“Huh,” Zio seemed surprised by the question. “No, the sex scenes,” he said with noticeable longing.

Eugene was studying his phone and then began to read from its tiny screen. “Natalie Portman. Born June 9, 1981 in Israel. Attended the Solomon Schecter Day School of Glen Cove, New York. First movie, “The Professional…”

What’s a nice girl from Glen Cove doing making Zio’s heart race?

Thankfully the check came and the Natalie Portman biography, as read by Eugene, was cut short. All that seafood and we were still a few dollars under our allotted $20 per person budget. Morgan Fish was a worthy choice, but just not one where it took four trains to get to. There had to be another way to show solidarity with our Egyptian brothers and sisters.

A Night on Steinway Street

3 May

Rick steered us to the Middle Eastern enclave on Steinway Street in Astoria on a summer night in 2006. Our destination was an Egyptian restaurant called Eastern Nights. What follows is our experience on our night on Steinway Street.

Eastern Nights
2535 Steinway St
Astoria

The man with the Middle Eastern accent grumbled on the phone that the R Train-Steinway Street stop was the closest subway station to Eastern Nights, the Egyptian restaurant, assigned by Rick. When I got out of the station and onto Steinway, I began to walk west. My phone buzzed. It was Zio telling me that the address for the restaurant was a billiards club, not Eastern Nights. I looked at the address I had; the numbers had been inadvertently transposed. The restaurant was east of the subway station—I was going in the wrong direction. I waited in front of a Colombian bakery while Zio circled back to pick me up. I saw the Connecticut plates and hopped into the car, the sound of Zio’s precious pesticides splashing in their containers in the back. Steinway Street was as congested as the teeming alleys of Old Cairo and it was slow going with no sign of our destination. It wasn’t until we began seeing men sitting on folding chairs in front of cafes sucking on hookahs that we knew we were close.

 We all arrived pretty much at the same time and were escorted into the back, under a big tent to a round table that was wet with water—the waiter joking with us that it had just rained, though we hadn’t had rain in days. There were a number of televisions suspended from the tent’s ceiling; a 1950’s black and white Egyptian romantic comedy was playing; the female lead looking a bit like Lucille Ball and not a head scarf in sight. The waiter mopped up the water and we sat and took a look at the menu. The first page was dominated by a variety of flavored teas and a separate hookah menu. We were in the back of the tent and in clear view of a large collection of hookahs that were maintained by a man whose only job was to maintain the hookahs, to blend the tobacco and light the coals. Inhaling tobacco with fruit flavors like apricot and mango would make for a unique experience, but we were here for the food, not the hookahs or the teas.

Hookahs

And the food was enough of an experience for us. So much so that our round table was just not big enough to hold all of it; the overworked waiter had to bring over a spare chair to use as a side table. Our unabashed excess drew looks from others in the restaurant, but nothing we weren’t used to. The feast began with fattoush, a cucumber, tomato salad followed by something called foul which turned out to be refried fava beans. A mound of warm pita bread was accompanied by a platter of hummus and baba ganoush, both swimming in olive oil.

Foul…but it really wasn’t.

A plate of grilled sausages, comprised mostly of casing stuffed with rice went alongside the hummus. Soon a platter of dry, tough and undernourished rabbit and duck crowded the table along with fatta, a stew made with a gamy lamb shank. Shrimp and calamari tajin, cooked in a crock and overwhelmed in a thick tomato sauce was squeezed onto the table as was a big plate where a whole grilled striped bass, cooked to perfect moistness was centered. We also had rice and something like rice with pieces of pita in it.

And then the pigeon arrived. Eastern Nights was the first restaurant of the many we had visited in almost four years that served the tiny, big city bird. It was magnificently presented; trussed lovingly—its tiny wings tied delicately together, a greasy glaze over its succulent skin. Zio looked at it and wondered if the chef has put a rub on it and if so, what could it be? The pigeon was stuffed with wheatberries and mint, which was a good thing because the meat on the tiny bird was scarce, to say the least. We picked at the pigeon, leaving the upper portion intact, its wings still tied together. That there would actually be something left to eat on our table was a rare occurrence in our outings, but at Eastern Nights, portions of the duck, rabbit and lamb tellingly remained. The striped bass, however was picked clean.

Urban poultry

Desserts were tempting and we would have liked to try them, but our waiter was scrambling from table to table, all alone in his work with the exception of the Hookah Man who was preparing the hookahs for use. Instead, we wandered across the street to a Middle Eastern café where we did our best to enjoy phyllo-wrapped sweets, but the Arabic newspaper prominently displayed in the café with its front page of color photos of the mutilated bodies of Lebanese children made dessert bittersweet to say the least.*

*Our visit to Steinway Street occurred during the peak of the Israeli/Lebanon conflict of 2006.

Searching the internet, I learned that Eastern Nights is now Eastern Nights Hookah Cafe. They have their own Facebook page which proclaims that it is also under new ownership and management. From Facebook I also learned that there is a DJ at the café Sunday through Friday nights and a belly dancer on Saturdays which, I’m sure, would make sucking on a hookah an almost pleasurable experience.

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