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Surfing Bay Ridge at Asmak Taama with Gibby Haynes
Matching fish with rock stars in Bay Ridge
By Robert Sietsema
Tuesday, January 13th 2009 at 3:32pm
Cook like an Egyptian
413 Bay Ridge Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 718-921-3200
My guests, on a last visit to Asmak Taama, included Butthole Surfers frontman Gibson "Gibby" Haynes and legendary Rolling Stones scribe Reverend Charles M. Young. Six of us found ourselves wedged into Scooter's compact hybrid—Gibby's wife, Missy, sprawled across his lap—bombing down Third Avenue in the night shadow of the Gowanus Expressway. Anticipating seafood, I was flashing over the Surfers' "Pepper" video, in which a woman with a bouffant hairdo scales a fish with a ferocious cleaver, all the while smiling into the camera. You keep expecting a finger to fly in your direction.
Our destination was one of the new Egyptian fish-market cafés in Bay Ridge, where you can view the raw catch glistening in the window, then step inside and devour it. With difficulty, we extracted ourselves from the blue Honda and burst into the pink interior of the restaurant. On the monitor overhead, 100 violinists dressed in white tuxedos accompanied a gentleman tinkling on a white piano—hey, I want Egyptian TV in my apartment! In fact, the proprietors of Asmak Taama ("Tasty Fish" in Arabic) hail from Alexandria, a port on the Mediterranean famous for its seafood cafés.
After we'd settled down at one of the long tables, I rendezvoused with our proprietress at the fish display and mulled over the selection. Arranged cheek-by-jowl, the fresh fish ranked in the front window were beguiling: big striped bass, their bulging sides crazed with a delicate black herringbone; slender pink snappers; sardines larger and milder than you've ever encountered before; gleaming silver barbounia, sometimes called mullets; bulbous foreshortened porgies, their eyes gleaming; and plainspoken tilapia, a fish often farmed in a sustainable fashion. I selected a porgy, two barbounia, and a giant striped bass, then watched as the specimens were whisked away to the kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. Wisely, we left the method of preparation up to our hostess.
As the apps began to arrive, Gibby regaled us with rock-tour tales, including one about trying to cook a fish in a rented RV somewhere in Indiana as it jounced down the interstate. First to hit the table was the fried eggplant appetizer ($3.50), which swam in a dark tomato sauce with lots of hot green chilies. "Shit, this is good," intoned Gibby in his nasal north-Texas accent, as he contemplated a piece of eggplant planted on a pita. We could only nod our assent, as our mouths were stuffed. Also among the early arrivers was a basket of golden French fries sprinkled with ground cumin ($2.50); a rudimentary salad of lettuce, tomatoes, and parsley slicked with olive oil; and a plate of dirty rice strewn with toasted pine nuts. The starters were so good that we were emboldened to order more—though we were disappointed to discover that "potato salad" is the name bestowed on plain roasted new potatoes.
But whatever the apps, salads, and sides, the fish arrive with a drumroll at Asmak Taama. In the Egyptian fashion, our hulking striped bass ($15) had been coated with whole-wheat flour and spices, dampened with seawater, and flame-grilled to coal-mine blackness. The intention is that the skin be stripped off and discarded, revealing the acres of smoky pink flesh. But Scooter dissented: "This skin is even more delish than the fish," he exclaimed delightedly.
The porgy ($13) and barbounia ($7 each) appeared next. They'd been deep-fried with a crunchy coating. While the porgy was large-boned and coarse-fleshed, making it easy to extract the bland, snowy meat, the tastier mullets had fine bones and took more work to eat. In addition, we were frankly freaked out by the fierce faces of the barbounia, which had two rows of teeth like white sixpenny nails. After a discussion of rock sainthood, in which I mentioned seeing Kurt Cobain T-shirts for sale outside the Assisi Cathedral in Italy, Gibby sheepishly noted he'd been in rehab with Cobain right before his self-offing.
After pushing back from the table, we washed everything down with steaming cups of sage tea and an assortment of pastries that the hostess had excused herself to go down the street to get. But the biggest surprise was yet to come. After comparing nightmarish stories about going to high school in Texas, where both he and I remembered being beset by Bible-thumping Christians, the venerable rock surrealist mentioned he'd graduated from Dallas's Lake Highlands High School. "Holy crap!" I exclaimed. "I went to the same penal institution! You must be its most famous grad."
"No," he replied modestly. "That would be Morgan Fairchild."