On a recent Saturday afternoon, I wandered into Fez Restaurant in Windsor Terrace. The dining room was nearly empty. The proprietor and chef, Bahija Elmourabit, noticed my perplexed expression and laughed. “Look in the back,” she said.
I walked through the long, narrow dining room and into a garden so bucolic it made the diners — and me — grin like idiots. The tables were filled with couples and families sitting beneath the white cloth umbrellas just loving the warm air, the flowers and, of course, the food.
By evening, the temperature had dropped, so my guests and I opted for a beautiful table with inlaid marble inside Fez’s dining room. The gold-walled space, hung with photos of Morocco, is peaceful, with candles and quiet music. With babies sleeping in carriages and couples sipping wine, Fez is the best kind of neighborhood place.
Elmourabit was one of the first restaurateurs to recognize Windsor Terrace as an area on its way up. In 2001, she launched the tiny 16th Street Gourmet, a storefront with room for a takeout counter. She followed that modest success with the more ambitious Fez last summer.
Little touches elevate Elmourabit’s fare from the usual Middle Eastern and Moroccan offerings. There is a charcoal grill that Elmourabit uses to sear meat and some of the vegetables for her salads. It’s that smoky grill flavor that also makes all the difference in the baba ghanoush. The savory eggplant dip is part of the sumptuous “maza” plate of salads and purees that we shared as an appetizer at the table. The “baba,” served with warm pita triangles, was accompanied by a rich hummus, chunks of ruby-colored beets in a sprightly lemon and parsley dressing and tabbouleh, the Middle East’s ubiquitous cracked wheat, parsley and mint salad.
We sipped wine from the bottle we brought (the wine and beer license is expected soon) and sampled slender “Moroccan cigars.” Crisp and slightly greasy outside, the ground beef filling was pungent with cumin, garlic and white pepper; anise seeds added their licorice taste while crumbly Israeli feta cheese adding a pleasant sharpness.
“Tagines,” stews cooked in deep, conical ceramic dishes of the same name, are the house specialty. We ordered the “Fez” tagine, one of the specials that evening, lifted off the heavy lid, and the aroma of rich meat and spices made us sigh. One huge, slow-cooked lamb shank carried meat so tender it needed only a nudge with the fork to fall away from the bone.
Chunks of roasted eggplant, tomatoes and celery were cooked until soft like caponata, but instead of the sweet and tart tang of the Italian version, the vegetables and meat are perfumed with a heady mix of garlic, fresh bay leaves and saffron. The dish comes with a bowl of moist, yellow basmati rice. On other occasions, I’ve ordered tagines with meat or seafood and fruit, like the chicken with caramelized apricots and prunes, and the lamb with green olives and preserved lemons. They’re just as lush and complex as the special.From that charcoal grill comes “kofta” (ground beef with cumin), kebabs and “merguez,” the aromatic lamb sausage. All are seasoned with a sure hand and retain their moisture.
When charcoal grill meets fresh tuna steak, though, there’s true chemistry. Elmourabit sears the edges of the fish so they’re smoky, yet leaves the center rare. A light sauce of orange and mustard freshens and lends bite to the fish’s sirloin-like flavor. Then, the fish is laid atop a salad of crisp cucumber squares and tomatoes in a bright lemon dressing. The dish was as transporting as the morning in the garden with the warm breeze blowing.
After those two entrees, the vegetable couscous — made with zucchini, carrots, turnips, chickpeas and tomatoes — seemed bland. With a spoonful of hot “harissa” (a North African condiment made with chiles, garlic, oil and spices), the vegetarian at our table was content.
The only downside to the menu is the desserts. The roundup varies, but what I’ve tried — a chocolate mousse cake and a French apple pie with vanilla ice cream — are too ordinary to make a fitting conclusion to such a multi-dimensional meal. I’d opt for the house-made “baklava” (phyllo layered with honey and nuts) and a pot of mint tea. The brew comes in a silver teapot and is poured into lovely midnight blue glasses etched in gold. The simplicity and perfection of that finale captures the experience of Fez.
Fez Restaurant (240 Prospect Park West between Windsor Place and Prospect Avenue in Windsor Terrace) accepts American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa. Lunch specials: $8 for three courses. Entrees: $9.50–$19.95. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner seven days a week. Brunch is available on weekends from 10 am–3 pm. Subway: F to Prospect Park/15th Street. For information, call (718) 369–0716.