Oran: A Busy Port With A Hidden Gem

A view inside El Djazira

hide captionA view inside El Djazira, where celebs and high rollers roamed in the restaurant's heyday.

Peter Kenyon/NPR
Skate meal

hide captionThe skate meal, a sought-after French delicacy, at El Djazira.

Peter Kenyon/NPR

Oran is the second largest city in Africa's second largest country, Algeria. And it's a bit friendlier — a bit more relaxed — than the bustling capital, Algiers.

It also features some of Algeria's breathtaking Mediterranean coastline, from rocky cliffs and white-knuckle, two-lane coastal driving to the resorts, casinos and sandy beaches of Ain el Turck.

Oran has a busy working port, servicing cargo ships, fishing boats and ferries that make regular runs to Casablanca and Marseille. Just above the port runs Oran's corniche, the seaside avenue lined with shops, hotels and monuments. It's here that one finds the hidden gem of Oran dining, El Djazira, which is still known to locals by its original name, La Bodega.

The exterior is modest to the point that those who don't know it generally pass it by. But food lovers, especially seafood lovers, make a point of staking out a seat at one of the eight tables wedged into El Djazira's long, narrow dining room.

In its glory days a half-century ago, the restaurant was a favorite of celebrities and high-rolling Algerians who would stop in before spending their nights at one of the casinos over at Canastel. Che Guevara dined here, as did famous actors and writers of the day.

The walls are not lined with celebrity photos, however — just a few paintings. In fact, although former President and Prime Minister Houari Boumedienne once dined here, on a visit in June there was only one photograph to be seen, hanging behind the snug, dark-paneled bar near the entrance. It was of Mohamed Boudiaf, the opposition leader who was brought out of exile by Algeria's ruling military junta in 1992 and briefly installed as head of state. His followers believe it was Boudiaf's efforts to root out corruption among the military elite that led to his assassination after just four months in office.

The current owner of El Djazira — the name was changed as part of Algeria's post-independence drive to eliminate colonial French names — is Abdel Nour, the third generation of his family to work here.

"In the mid-1950s, my grandfather came to work here," he says. "Then after independence (in 1962) he bought the place. Then my father ran it, and now it's mine."

The decor looks as if it hasn't changed much — a beautiful tiled wainscoting runs around the room, and large mirrors at one end give an impression of spaciousness.

There are menus at El Djazira, but if Nour knows you, he simply brings you whatever is best that day — usually that means the freshest fish from that morning's catch. My translator, Said, and I were fortunate enough to have been invited by Bob Parks, an American working in Oran who knows Nour and steers his friends to the restaurant whenever possible.

Nour runs an old-school, no nonsense French-style kitchen that sticks to the pleasures of the Mediterranean and doesn't try to impress with towers of food or fancy foams.

The main course turned out to be a perfectly cooked whole raie — the humble skate, which at one time was tossed overboard by fishermen before French chefs turned it into a sought-after delicacy. The skate was surrounded by very fresh, gently seasoned heads-on jumbo prawns. Some lime juice, a few potatoes on the side and a bottle of chilled rosè made for a delightful summer lunch.

Oran has an important role in Algerian history. Not far from El Djazira is the famous port Mers-el-Kebir, scene of one of the more startling events of World War II. In 1940, after France was occupied by Nazi Germany, part of the French naval fleet was sent to Mers-el-Kebir, to keep it out of German hands. But despite French assurances that the warships would never fall under Nazi control, the British bombed the fleet on July 3, killing some 1,200 French sailors.

Nour employs his own diver, and he scours the seafront for the best fish.

"I'm up at 6 in the morning," he says. "I'm always on the lookout for what's fresh and trying to bring in just enough for today."

He's not sure what will happen to the restaurant when he retires, as he has no children. Today, Oran is perhaps best known as the home of Rai music. But for those seeking a whiff or an echo of the cosmopolitan refinement of postwar Algeria, its spirit lives on at El Djazira.

El Djazira (Formerly La Bodega) 09, Boulevard de L'Aln, Oran, Algeria

+213(0)72.81.61.51

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