To paraphrase Bogey, I’ll just say that - Of all the joints in all the towns in Fairfield county, we walked into “The Fez.” It was a rainy evening and I could have sworn I saw Rick and Ilsa running for cover from the deluge. They should have come in! This new Moroccan-style restaurant at 227 Summer Street in Stamford, co-owned by Bharat Patel and Eric Monte, is an alluring respite from whatever storm you are escaping. It’s cozy and warm. And it’s very cool. “Cool? In Fairfield County?” you ask. Indeed - Here’s looking at The Fez, kids.
The physical space is deliciously inviting with sexy red walls and dim lighting. There is seating for about 50, including one large, communal table in the middle for larger parties. For more intimate dining there is also a group of tables with a curtain to keep romantic parties in and the rest of us (or Vichy collaborators!) out. The back area sports a small stage with cushions and stools for the various performing artists that The Fez hosts each night starting at 9:30. Yes, you heard me! Here, people are actually coming in the door to eat that late (the kitchen is open until midnight), not going to sleep! But more on the “happenings” later. Let’s eat:
To begin, it MUST be mentioned that the menu for this “culinary journey through the spice route” at THE FEZ was created by Richard Gencarelli, right-hand man to the one and only TODD ENGLISH. It shows. The eclectic and fabulously appetizing selections whet your appetite and fill your mind with images of Casa Blanca and enormous ceiling fans. Bogey’s gin is replaced here with a huge wine list and some killer, home-made infused vodkas: Orange Blossom - with imported Lebanese orange blossom essence, Sangria Vodka - with all the usual suspects soaked forever in Vodka instead of wine, and my favorite, the Pickle Vodka- infused with dill, garlic, cucumber and a dollop of balsamic. If you love the juice from the pickle jar like I do, this is the Martini-maker for you! But the vodka’s just the opener for the vast and varied selection that chefs Shelby Gopinath and Regis Saget have created. A truly Moroccan menu is one that shows an array of cuisines due to the many influences and interactions that Morocco has experienced with the outside world for centuries. The foods are a mixture of Berber, Moor, Mediterranean, Arab, and in this case Indian as this is Head Chef Gopinath‘s background. Typical spices include cinnamon, saffron, mint, cumin, ginger, coriander, tumeric, to name a few, and dried fruits are always present. THE FEZ doesn’t leave anything out. As time goes by, we’ll try all that they have to offer. But for our first visit, this is what we ate:
We started with some “snacks,” sort of like tapas Moroccan-style, from the top of the menu. The CRISPED CHICK PEAS AND OKRA were fantastic. Lightly fried and crunchy, the chick peas were salted and nutty and the okra was light, refreshing and barely recognizable in this savory (and thankfully non-slimy) form. The strong influence of cinnamon began in this dish and was present throughout the evening. Next we tried the CARAMELIZED CAULIFLOWER with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts. What made this dish so outstanding was the pull of the browned butter in which the cauliflower was braised. At the end of each bite, that scrumptiously decadent, slightly earthy flavor was left lingering on all participating tongues. We also sampled the HUMMUS and AVJAR (a pureed relish of roasted peppers and garlic) with home-made, whole wheat FEZ chips. Here I felt that the addition of cinnamon to the chips overwhelmed the delicate flavors of the HUMMUS and the AVJAR. But all in all, these dips were fresh and tangy and reliably tasty. The SAG & FETA ROLLS with Kalamata olives were a cross between a Chinese spring roll and an Indian Samosa. They were lightly fried and nicely crisp with creamy spinach and tangy feta within. This was a filling array of appetizers but we had to go on. If not we would regret it- not that day or the next, but someday and for the rest of our lives. Onward (with Laszlo) for the cause…
“Small Plates” were next. Fantastic soup was first on the list and MOROCCAN HARIRA was its name. Harira is Morocco’s go-to, break-the-fast meal during the holy month of Ramadan. I can see why. Composed of a tomato base, chickpeas, pasta, onions, ginger, beaten eggs, celery and other herbs, sometimes with meat and often accompanied by dried fruit (in this case - one perfect date on the side), Harira is really a meal by itself. We were served bowls full of this piping hot delight which seemed to be a cross between Italian minestrone and Chinese sweet & sour. I detected a tiny hint of lemon in the soup which elevated and layered the flavors wonderfully. This was great soup, period. The SPICED LAMB CHOPS were also noteworthy. Lightly bathed in stone-ground mustard and rolled in anchovy breadcrumbs, these tender chops were flavorful and juicy. The anchovy breadcrumb coating did not give the meat the fishy taste you might expect, but simply enhanced the lamb’s unique flavor with traces of salt. We also sampled the GRILLED MARINATED CHICKEN LOLLIPOPS, served with roasted garlic and tamarind yogurt. The chefs frenched the chicken wing drummettes, inverted the meat and spiced them with Tandoori flavorings (again, we see the influence of Chef Gopinath). Wings can be tendon-y, and these were no exception. But the expertise of the chefs coupled with the extraordinary mix of spices and flavors makes this a favorite dish among THE FEZ’S already-regular clientele. The MOROCCAN SHRIMP PIL PIL was our favorite dish of the evening. Here, jumbo shrimp were slow stewed in a tomato ragu and then baked in a Tagine (North African clay braising pot). Served over a bed of couscous, the shrimp were garnished with cracked green olives and parsley. Seven Spice (a combo of black and white pepper, all spice, coriander, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg used throughout the meal) was deeply present here and this Pil Pil had some kick- kick! I was sweating now, a bit like Ugarte, and happy to be doing so.
Finally, dessert. We tried the Moroccan BRIWAT which was the North African version of Baklavah. Layered pastry with pistachio/walnut filling, honey on top, a mild hint of orange blossom, and finished with a chocolatey drizzle, this BRIWAT was shweeeet. Too much for me, but if you are a Baklavah fan, this BRIWAT is just WAT you should order. We also tried the LEBANESE PUDDING, one of the evening's specials, and this was the comfort food in which Rick and Ilsa could have wallowed. It’s Lebanese rice pudding with pistachios, raisins and yes, shockingly,- cinnamon!
It was served cold and, though I really DO prefer my rice- pud hot, this was a delicate yet tasty cold-pud experience.
“Where is it?” you ask. Where is that trite, over used and most globally misquoted movie line in history? I’m getting there, keep reading…
So why THE FEZ? The food is great. This fact plus the ambiance plus the calendar of events is what puts THE FEZ into the “do not miss” category. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 2pm -1am and on Sunday from 2pm - 11pm (closed Mondays). It is an amazing venue for a birthday bash, a girls night out, a bachelor/bachelorette party, etc. Just call and book to reserve. Each night there are “goings-on” at THE FEZ and you are sure to find something you love. Enjoy jazz on Sundays, Belly Dancing on Fridays, to name a couple of choices. We went on a Wednesday and that meant it was singer/sonwriter night. After a brief intro by the DJ, wanna-be singers and musicians were invited onto the stage to display their musical bravura. The night we were there it wasn’t the greatest group but there was one adorable young fella and I think his name was Sam. He was awful. But I had already downed my second “PICKLE VODKA” of the evening and the ambiance and energy here was turning me on. My other foodie friends were hoping the guy would stop but I felt compelled to encourage - here it comes - “ Play it, Sam!” I CORRECTLY pleaded. He did.
THE FEZ. The atmosphere is great. The drinks are exotic and so are the belly dancers. If you aren’t already in NYC, London or Casa Blanca, this is the place to be. I'm going back for sure. Indeed, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
THE FEZ 227 Summer Street, Stamford 203.324.FEZ1