Ever since its debut in 2010, The Fez in Stamford made a name for itself as an eclectic hotspot. Around the corner from Napa and Company and across the street from Barcelona Wine Bar, the Fez offered an alternative experience: nightclub vibes, live music, crimson walls, esoteric wines by the glass, and Spice Route cuisine. When it closed its doors in the summer of 2015 for renovations, its followers (including me!) didn’t know what to expect. I recently had the opportunity to visit The Fez 2.0 for myself. They invited me to participate in a five-course Chilean Wine Dinner, and I eagerly accepted.
It turns out that The Fez 2.0 is largely the same- and I mean that in the best possible way.
(Photo by Natasha Miller)
New owners Fred and Nancy Laist embraced the original features that defined The Fez in its previous era. The menu includes many of the same items. Live music remains at the forefront. (They are already booked up Thursday-Sunday through March of next year!) Kristen tends the bar. The interior, though expanded to include more seating, continues to feels small and intimate. The stage remains at one end of the restaurant, with a handful of tables and booths in front of it. Red walls still complement dark wood and varied upholstery.
Photo by Richard Cadan Photography"At the same time, Fred and Nancy have expanded the restaurant in ways that honor The Fez’s original vision. By working closely with their partner Jay Patel, who has been a partner at Fez since its debut 7 years ago, they have made a variety of changes that have brought new energy to the restaurant. In keeping with its reputation as a forum for emerging musicians, The Fez now offers a regular open mic night as well as karaoke. They also added belly dancing, which accompanies the Mediterranean meets Middle Eastern cuisine. Though the menu feels familiar, there is now a children’s menu as well as online ordering. Lunchtime diners can partake in a $10 “power lunch” that includes a generously sized sandwich, a beverage, and fries.
One of the changes they are most proud of is the “artist in residence” program. Every 3 months or so, The Fez features the work of a local artist. Each installment begins with an opening reception for the artist, their friends and family, and the community at large. From there, their pieces adorn the walls of the restaurant so that diners have the chance to admire- and perhaps purchase- them.
Photo by Richard Cadan Photography"“We curate the artists themselves and then they choose the work,” Nancy explained to me. “They are happy to have a space.”
Artists have been so eager to take advantage of the space that Fred and Nancy have received an outpouring of inquiries about the program. When selecting an artist, they strive to select someone within the local community. Working with The Stamford Art Association allows them to locate artists from the area. They are currently featuring pieces from Karnie Papa, a Stamford native, through early January.
Participating in the community is an important pillar of the new Fez. Fred and Nancy have been Stamford residents for 18 years.
“We are truly very happy with Stamford and with that in mind feel it important to stay connected to the city that we call home,” Nancy told me. “We want to do our part in helping to keep the city great and we feel involvement in the community from a personal and professional standpoint is of paramount importance to help achieve that goal.”
In addition to their work with The Stamford Art Association, they are active members of Stamford Downtown Special Services District/Stamford Tables and the Hubbard Heights Neighborhood Association. They also have developed a close association with Pinot’s Palette so that the two can partner to produce special events. Their next painting night will be on December 7. For just $39, one can paint a picture under the guidance of a teacher and enjoy a complimentary glass of wine.
The night I was there was another way of summoning the local community- with a special twist. Nancy was uniting her past, a degree from Cornell University, with her present, Fairfield County. She had gathered members of the Cornell Club of Fairfield County for an evening of food paired with wines from Chile.
As I sat down to dinner, I learned that the Fez’s former chef, Shelby, had returned to his home in India. They assured me we were in very good hands though. Their new chef, Anjith Matthew, joined the team in August after working at the popular Stamford restaurant Coromandel. Prior to that, he earned an associate’s degree in Hotel Management from the Academy for Management Studies (AMS) in Kerala, India and worked for various 4+ star hotels.
“We found that a chef with a vast knowledge in Indian seasonings and spices has a fantastic palate, embracing the Moroccan flavors with great enthusiasm and expertise,” Nancy explained.
Fred, too, has extensive culinary background. He was the Food & Beverage Controller for Corporate Culinary from 1996 until 2004, a group that managed and ran corporate cafeterias in New York City, Long Island, and Stamford for a high-end client base. He went on to take ownership of a company that ran cafeterias, private dining rooms, and restaurants in 5-star residential buildings. He even fed sports teams like the Rangers, Knicks, and Liberty!
As promised, the food did not disappoint! Everything was bursting with flavor and prepared wonderfully. Each course consisted of a few dishes presented family style so that there was ample opportunity to experience the menu. The first course included a platter of hummus and the Fez’s signature cinnamon spiced pita chips as well as a Fattoush Salad. I particularly enjoyed the salad because it contained one of my favorite items from the menu, the crispy chickpeas! Usually served as its own side dish, these chickpeas were scattered throughout the salad for a touch of crunch and spice. All of this was paired with a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc with fresh acidity.
The second course was a sampling of stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita, and caramelized cauliflower. All were tasty and paired nicely with the Montes Valle del Colchaugua Carmenere, a tannic Chilean red.
The third course saw the arrival of larger, savory dishes. A Mediterranean chicken breast appeared before us adorned with artichoke, roasted red pepper, capers, and olives. It was tender and juicy. They also presented plates of shrimp and vegetable kebobs punctuated by falafel balls. These main dishes were accompanied by roasted potatoes with harissa mayonnaise. Everything was delicious and readily consumed.
The fourth course proved most impressive of them all. Nancy had raved about the slow braised lamb shank, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Servers presented a bowl filled with generous portions of succulent meat covered in a red wine reduction sauce. As a grand, finishing touch, the bone was erected in the center of the lamb and topped with a sprig of rosemary. It was rich, decadent, and phenomenal. I only wished that I had more room in my stomach to have more! Veggie zaelouk came to the table as well. While good, most were still captivated by the lamb. They saved the most impressive wine of the evening for this course, the Valle del Colchagua Syrah Folly from Montes Wines. The full-bodied wine had notes of dark fruit and spice. It retails for around $85.
The dinner concluded with a Chilean rose and a tray of sweets: briwats, a North African version of baklava, and fig and date tartlets. Both were tasty, and the sweet taste provided an excellent conclusion to the spicy and flavorful meal.
The Fez already has a second meal centered on Greek wines scheduled with the Cornell Club in January. In the months ahead, The Fez also hopes to offer wine pairing dinners to the community at large.
“Commitment to being involved in the community truly is part of who we are in business and in our lives as a whole,” Nancy emphasizes.
Visit The Fez’s website for the latest event listings, menus, music schedules, and more!
227 Summer Street
Stamford, CT 06901
[Photo courtesy of CT Post]