Toronto·Suresh Doss

This Toronto grill house serves up authentic Mediterranean seafood

Chef Hesham Abdelrehim presents seafood feasts complete with traditional Egyptian sides.

Mermaid Fish and Grill House is located at 44 St. Clair Ave. E.

Singari-style fish plated at Mermaid Fish and Grill House. (Suresh Doss)

In the early 2000s, good shawarma options were scarce in downtown Toronto. There were maybe a handful of shops that were serving rotisserie roasted meat sandwiches.

Then came Alexandria Falafel. The small takeout spot on Queen Street West in Little Tibet managed to maintain a lineup out the door, regardless of the time of day.

It was owned and operated by Hesham Abdelrehim. Born in Egypt, Abdelrehim moved to Canada in the 1990s with aspirations of running his own food business. Shawarma seemed the obvious fit, at first.

In his small shop, Abdelrehim introduced Torontonians to his version of rotisserie: the style he grew up with in Alexandria.

How to grill traditional Egyptian seafood

3 years ago
Duration 0:59
Pharaoh and Singari-style fish are specialties at Mermaid Fish and Grill House.

"There were two other shawarma shops in Toronto at the time," he said. "Both were Lebanese. I was trying to do something different."

The store was an instant success, and Abdelrehim opened a second location at College and Bathurst next to Sneaky Dee's. Meanwhile, Toronto was in the middle of a nightclub renaissance. From College to Queen, Richmond and Adelaide streets, there was a boom of everything from small to coliseum-sized clubs.

Thousands of club crawlers would pour into the city every weekend, so naturally, Toronto started to fill with small takeout joints where clubbers would congregate after a long night of partying.

Hesham Abdelrehim moved to Canada from Egypt in the 1990s with aspirations of running his own food business. (Suresh Doss)

Abdelrehim wanted to do something different. He channelled nostalgia — the time he spent as a youth in Alexandria. He recalls spending many mornings on the banks of the Mediterranean port city visiting fishermen, in awe of their work.

"They would always give us a little fish or two to take home," he said. "I would go home and watch my grandmother and mother cook it."

Seeing a void of Egyptian seafood in Toronto, Abdelrehim decided to feature a secret menu at Alexandria Falafel's College Street location. He debuted a traditional seafood dish, Singari-style fish — butterflied catch-of-the-day tossed with a coating of punchy spices, like cumin, and grilled on high heat with a layering of vegetables.

I remember digging into the plump flesh, which was accented by bursts of spice but still delicate and tender. I had never eaten Singari-style fish like this before. The secret menu was a hit.

The Singari-style fish is butterflied catch-of-the-day tossed with a coating of punchy spices, grilled on high heat with a layering of vegetables. (Suresh Doss)

Shortly afterward, Abdelrehim sold his Alexandria Falafel shops to pursue his dream of running a seafood restaurant.

"It was a desire to do something new again," he said. "There are plenty of shawarma shops, but no one was showing traditional Egyptian seafood."

He opened Mermaid Fish and Grill House on Lawrence Avenue East in Scarborough. Situated at the start of what is commonly referred to as "Little Middle East," Abdelrehim quickly found an audience for his menu.

"I was featuring mainly fish from Greece and Turkey with some local options," he said.

The Pharo-style fish, left, and Singari-style fish are accompanied by hummus, Egyptian rice, tahini and baba ganoush. (Suresh Doss)

Abdelrehim continued to perfect his Singari-style fish while expanding the menu with other grilled options, like calamari and shrimp. Gone were the days of eating fried fish in a takeout shop. Now, Abdelrehim was presenting seafood feasts complete with traditional Egyptian sides.

He introduced me to a style of Egyptian rice which is slow cooked with onions and has a buttery and nutty quality. He would take tahini and accent it with garlic and lemon to create a superior version of tartar sauce.

The tahini became a compulsory side — guests always requested extra. Bowls of creamy baba ganoush and hummus rounded out the feast.

Styrofoam is notoriously difficult to recycle, but has traditionally been used to package fresh food, particularly fish for restaurant deliveries. (Suresh Doss)

And while his 24-seat Scarborough restaurant was successful, he had ambitions to move closer to the city. He found a small location on St. Clair Avenue East two years ago and closed the Scarborough location. While the new spot is steps from Yonge Street and the subway line, if you blink, you'll miss it.

Guests can choose their favourite type of seasonal fish — like sea bream, trout and sea bass — and select how they want it cooked, whether that's grilled, fried or Singari-style. The new location is every bit as good as Abdelrehim's Scarborough restaurant.

During a recent visit, I was introduced once again to a dish I have never seen before.

"I call this the Pharo fish," he said. "It is classic Alexandria."

Abdelrehim says the pharo-style fish is 'classic Alexandria.' (Suresh Doss)

I picked sea bream. After Abdelrehim cleans the fish, he stuffs the belly with an assortment of herbs and spices. The whole fish is then thoroughly coated in wheat bran before it cooks on a grill heated to around 370 C.

"The dish takes a little bit of time, so I suggest people eat some falafel or a side while they wait," he said.

Once the fish is off the grill, it's almost entirely blackened on both sides with a thick crust from the wheat bran. Abdelrehim then dunks the whole fish into a bath of lemon juice, cumin and crushed pepper.

"It's a marinade that soaks into the fish but preserves the skin a little bit," he said.

The Singari-style fish is grilled on high heat. (Suresh Doss)

The blackened fish is usually served with a side of tahini and hot sauce on request. The wheat bran traps the juices inside the fish, which means the flesh is perfectly plump and tender when it arrives at the table.

With each spoonful you're hit with spice and hints of smoke, and a palatable amount of tang to round it off. It is now my favourite dish on the menu at Mermaid.

My advice: don't skip on the hot sauce.

Abdelrehim uses Jamaican scotch bonnet peppers to make something that feels and tastes more like a salsa than hot sauce. It's chunky with hits of smoke and vinegar, and the right amount of spice to complement the fish.