"Chez Slah" Joins The Ranks Of North Africa’s Best Restaurants

Food is a major part of Tunisian life; Tunisians love to eat. A catalog of restaurants in Tunis alone would fill a substantial book. I asked some of my Tunisian friends recently, and some frequent American visitors to Tunisia, if we could agree on the best restaurant in Tunis. Of course, we could not agree, but I was not at all surprised at how many votes (there were more than 20) picked Chez Slah, a wonderful eatery hidden away down a tiny side street at 14 bis, rue Pierre de Coubertin near the exact center of town. You’ll probably need a good taxi driver to find it.

Like most high-end North African cuisine, the cooking at Chez Slah has deep French roots and focuses mainly on seafood and simply prepared poultry and lamb dishes, but what sets Chez Slah apart is the fastidious care with which the chef personally selects fish at waterfront markets every day. This is an art, and to do it well takes experience and great skill.

Most of the denizens of Chez Slah are permanent residents of the city, with a smattering of well-informed visitors from out of town. You won’t run into any of the tour boat crowd here, or casual tourists. I have heard it said by some that they feel that dinner here is the equivalent of an invitation to the very elegant private home of an upper crust member of the Tunisois elite. This is the best Tunisian dining as enjoyed by Tunisians with the best taste.

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I usually start my meal here with a nice Chardonnay because I know that the waiter will soon bring a breadbasket and a plate of olives and tomato paste, quite out of this world, though you’d think anyone could pull this off. I think they must make the tomato paste themselves. It always seems to go better with a white wine. For my main course, I have often had a grilled shrimp appetizer and then whatever fresh fish the waiter specially recommends to me, most recently the rouget, also grilled. It came with simple pommes frits, cooked in animal fat the French way, rather than vegetable oil. I suppose this is harder on one’s heart, but hey, you only live once, and I miss the way we used to cook pommes frits in the days before everyone become so health-conscious.

The fish and potatoes were about as fresh as I’ve ever tasted anywhere. Very simple cuisine, but elegantly prepared with great attention to detail. The food is unassuming but so good! I think there is something else that I always find delightful about Chez Slah that is hard to put my finger on, and that is its undefinable quality as a part of Tunis’s long historical past, perhaps reflecting the city as it might have looked a century ago.

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Chez Slah differs from the pricier and showier restaurants in better known parts of town, for example those around glitzy La Marsa and the opulent new hotels (though the food there can be quite good, though more continental). I always find myself scrutinizing the other clientele at Chez Slah, mainly expatriates and wealthy members of Tunisian society. This is a place largely undiscovered by new arrivals.

Do not fail to make a reservation before you come to Chez Slah, as the regulars often come several times a week to patronize this unique and precious gem. I once showed up without a reservation and was only admitted because of a timely cancellation while I was waiting for a cab to take me somewhere else, probably pricier and not as good. You can reserve a table by calling: +216 71 258 588.

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by Francesca Salerno