Liz O’Reilly paid a visit to a man who’s a legend on the Bahrain dining scene and discovered Uncle Hamed’s fame is well deserved.

Restaurants and chefs come and go in Bahrain’s ever evolving hospitality sector. So, if you’ve gained a loyal following that still clamours for your food after almost 30 years in the business, you must be doing something right!

Such is the case with Uncle Hamed, the Egyptian-Bahraini chef who first started offering his irresistible Alexandrian-influenced seafood to local diners back in 1995. After various iterations of his kitchen, he opened Uncle Hamed’s Seafood Restaurant at The Curv Mall– Adliya around a year ago and both prices and quality ensure the place is always buzzing.

A simple, single-room establishment decorated in aqua blues and whites with comfy chairs and fish motifs giving a nautical theme, the overwhelming atmosphere is of a friendly welcome – you immediately feel as if you are one of the family and this is, indeed, a family affair with Uncle Hamed overseeing the kitchen and his son Mohammed taking on the role of genial host.

First to our table came a selection of salads. The Egyptian baba ghanouj is closer to what, in Bahrain, is called moutabel and benefits from grill-cooked eggplants for a deliciously smoky taste. My Egyptian dining companion explained that there is a subtle variation in terms of the spices used which makes all the difference. A plate of round, golden-roasted eggplant slices topped with gritty spices, reminiscent of harissa, with crunchy dried chilli and coriander seeds, could have been a meal in itself. The richness of the oil saturating the yielding flesh of the vegetable created a uniquely flavourful, almost pulpy texture.

A typical Alexandrian dish of long, thin pickled eggplants, marinated for 24 hours with spices and tomatoes, introduced a zesty, salty bite. And a beetroot salad redolent with garlic and sesame also benefitted from a 24-hour marination. I am a big fan of beetroot but have never tasted anything quite like it. The combination of sweetness with the nutty tang of the sesame, piquant roasted garlic and high-quality olive oil made for a masterful blend that I kept going back to throughout our meal (and joyfully took home too).

Various other plates teemed with tasty, fresh tomatoes, chopped vegetables, green leaves and dill. The Egyptian version of tahini, with its authentic blend of spices, sat alongside Uncle Hamed’s own secret sauce – I detected a hint of Dijon mustard together with subtle herbs and spices – inviting us to dip the traditional morsels of crunchy, deep fried Arabic bread. Heaven!

Two soups, one indulgently creamy, the other a translucent tomato-based broth, tickled our taste buds with abundant plump prawns and other tasty seafood.

Then, it was time for the main event. The fish. And I was delighted when we were presented with plastic gloves, allowing us to dig deep to secure the tastiest chunks of meat from each plate that adorned the table.

Now, one thing to know about Uncle Hamed’s is that the menu simply lists the variety of fish available from hammour and safi to seabass and salmon. But, the method of cooking is the important thing. So, I attempted to get an education, while sampling dish after delicious dish, each more tempting than the last.

We were mostly served sea bream, but the methods of cooking rendered each plate a masterpiece. First came a very traditional option cooked Rada style – the exterior coated in wheat bran – and blackened on the grill. No oil is used in the preparation resulting in a very clean flavour profile that’s both healthy and delicious.

Sea bream with garlic, lemon and olive oil also presented a very simple taste, the chef’s expertise shown in that the lemon and garlic didn’t overpower the delicate sweetness of the fish, which was cooked to perfection, flaky but still firm and not at all dry. A definite favourite at our table was the sea bream Singari. The fish is marinated with coriander, parsley, garlic, herbs, chilli and lemon juice and then stuffed with sautéed onion, peppers, tomatoes, carrots and spices before being baked on a bed of sliced potatoes. It was simply divine. The potatoes picked up the flavour of the fish, while the fish itself absorbed the different juices from the vegetables.

Another take on this, and a surprise even to my dedicated Egyptian foodie dining companion, was a sea bream Singari with béchamel sauce. Boasting all the robust flavours of its counterpart, the addition of the rich, creamy sauce, lightly browned and totally aromatic, rendered this already excellent dish a triumph of flavours and textures.

We were also served a whole deep-fried fish which, I have to admit, looked a little off-putting to me, my slightly squeamish Western sensibilities not at all sure about staring my food in the eye, but the sight of my begloved companion digging in to the crunchy skin and soft flesh soon allayed my reticence and I joined in. Honestly, fish skin really shouldn’t taste so good – crispy and salty with just a faint tang of the seashore giving way to delicately soft meat. I’ll admit it, I’m a convert!

Alongside the full-fish platters, we were also served crispy fried shrimps and calamari – piping hot, their crunchy coating perfect for dipping in the tahini and secret sauce. And a bowl of nalta jute (molokhia), minced leaf soup. Slightly viscous and redolent with garlic and coriander, it gave a true taste of the land of the pharaohs – it’s a dish that’s served across Egypt coming with just vegetables or chicken, meat or prawns depending on the wealth of the diner.

Though there was still an array of rices, salads and various fish on the table, I was reaching my limit, so my last spoonful to try came in the form of the Tagine Uncle Hamed. And, my goodness, I chose well. Bursting with a combination of lightly sweet and savoury hints, big juicy chunks of tomato joined herbs and spices in a rich sauce enveloping a generous helping of succulent prawns. Tangy lemon, feisty coriander, gentle parsley and sweet paprika combined to render the gravy a sublime flavour explosion and I can happily say that, having taken home leftovers, this magical dish only improved the next day.

With not a centimetre of stomach space left, I can honestly say, Uncle Hamed’s is a restaurant everyone should try – but go hungry and get there early, you won’t be the only one eager to dive into this amazing seafood experience. ✤