Going out to dinner in Tunis is a tricky thing. There are good restaurants worth pursuing, but there are obstacles, such as the following:
- Most dinner restaurants don’t begin seating until 7:00, at the earliest, and more likely 8:00 or 8:30. This just doesn’t work so well for North American types, like us, who start their days at 5:00 AM.
- Because the restaurants open late, they generally take reservations for only one seating for the evening. Even if you swear you could get in and out before that 10:00 party who reserved the table arrives, the restaurant host is uncomfortable about releasing the table.
- Just when you find a restaurant you think could become part of your life, it inexplicably closes, moves, or changes in some other way that isn’t as good.
I have learned, living here, not to set my heart or my stomach on going out to eat. If we think we are willing to make the effort to wait until 7:00 or 8:00 for dinner, we make a reservation, in French, another inhibitor, to be sure that the restaurant still exists and we have the required booking, but I always have a meal backup in mind just in case some part of the plan falls through.
We had a restaurant that was becoming the go-to of the school community named Le Golfe. Foolishly, I always puzzled why it sounded like a golf club restaurant and only just recently realized it is French for “the gulf” as the restaurant sits right on the beach, looking out at the Gulf of Tunis. We really liked this restaurant because it had a hip, modern interior, beautiful interaction with the sea and breezes, and a good menu. Most of all, we came to realize that by 6:00 PM, some Tunisians would still be sitting around at tables finishing a long leisurely lunch and if we bullied the host just a little, and absolutely swore we could vacate the table within 4 hours, we could also get in.
This was working so well for us that one Friday evening, when I really wanted to eat out, I broke my own rule about having a backup. In the morning, we had agreed we would have dinner there and I enjoyed thinking about that prospect all day long. When we pulled up to the restaurant, however, we were confronted with mounds of dirt surrounding the building and a backhoe, smashing down the roof and walls with its bucket. I was devastated, partly because I really liked the building the way it was, but mostly because I then had to go home on a Friday evening and spend a couple of hours in the kitchen, after all, making a dinner.
I was also disappointed because I almost always have the same thing there and I was hungry for it that day. The title of my favorite dish on the menu includes poisson, vapeur, and pommes de terre. I can’t imagine why I ever ordered it in the first place, but it turned out to be a small, white fish called dourade, steam cooked in a crust of thinly sliced, crunchy potatoes. The combination of the moist fish and crunchy, salty potatoes is haunting and I get really hungry sometimes for that exact dish.
I drove by Le Golfe last night. I didn’t really expect they would be ready for business, but I wanted some indication whether or not the restaurant might ever be in my life again. Some sort of renovating is going on, but I can’t be sure it is going to be reopened as a restaurant. It might be someone’s home, which also hurts my feelings because if I could have picked any different place to live in Tunis, other than my own sweet house, it would have been in that restaurant. Anyway, I knew I had to take matters into my own hands if I was to satisfy my fish craving anytime soon, so I went right to the fish market and brought home a few little dourades for dinner.
The sage in my garden has had a recent flush of spring growth so I snipped plenty of sage leaves to layer in, too.
I do recall that the potato crust at the restaurant isn’t firmly adhered to the fish, but just layers around it, so I first built little potato and sage rafts in a baking dish on top of some olive oil, sea salt, and Szechuan pepper.
I laid the fish on top and oven fried that first side. Then, I removed the fish and potato, letting it drain for a minute while I built the second side in the dish. Flipping the fish, I cooked side two, crisping the potatoes and sage.
I still have to work on my potato fish scale technique, but I am happy to tell you that I achieved the flavor and most importantly, the texture of the dish and I can satisfy my craving now, with or without the restaurant.
Thank you for pretending with me that these overexposed photos are arty. I am still struggling with adjusting for shutter speed and aperture at the same time.