Cinnamon, spice and just about everything nice are on the menu at Le Club Fez, a recently opened French Moroccan restaurant near the Terrace Theatre on James Island.
“Fez” is one of the best examples of the advantages of living in a vital, diverse and growing town like Charleston. Once a bastion of primarily Lowcountry and soul food restaurants, in just a little under a decade, Charleston has morphed into a culturally diverse dining mecca where tagines and tapas dance just as beautifully as shrimp and grits on our collective dining “carte“.
Hearty thanks go to Fez consultant David Leboutillier and operating partner Craig Nelson who spent months transforming the beyond-bland landscapes of Cynthia’s and Lulu’s that once occupied this space into the plush red carpet of exotic flavors and ancient culture that is Morocco and its oldest imperial city – Fez.
Chef Bryan Lyndsay’s classical French training shines on both sides of the Mediterranean in the two sections of the menu; French and Moroccan. The merger is logical based on France’s long colonial presence in the African country and is deftly executed at Fez by Lyndsay and his kitchen team . Many preparations, such as the resoundingly delicious olives and mussels, can be served either a la “Francais” or “Moroccais” and French bistro classics like cassoulet and confit du canard somehow seem just right simmering in the shadow of Fez’s towering clay tagines – a hallmark of Moroccan fare.
The olfactory senses explode upon entering the crimson den that is softened with blood-red curtains and hushed lighting streaming through gorgeous lamps that hang like glowing orbs from a padded ceiling.
Cinnamon, orange, cumin, cardamom, saffron, turmeric, and more wafted through my nostrils and into my soul setting the stage for what proved to be a sumptuous and rewarding feast for which I will return again and again – especially at these prices. Tagines that can easily feed two range from a meager $16-$18 and the French “plats principaux” run from $16-$23. Fez includes an abbreviated sandwich selection ($7.25-$8) for the Terrace theatre crowd or late night world of James Island looking for a light bite to put a tasty close to its nocturnal cravings.
Early, late, or any time of day you can get your hands on them, the olives Moroccais are an irresistible indulgence redolent with the exoticism of Morocco’s splendid spice palette. The olives spend a long time bathing in a marinade to acquire a softened plumpness and an earthy spice aroma that leans heavily and most deliciously towards cinnamon, orange and more. The B’stilla starter (or petits plat) is another cinnamon delight, this one layered in phyllo dough and stuffed with chunky, roasted whole almonds and mercilessly delicious bites of juicy, rich chicken.
As tempting as they sounded in their French deliciousness, cassoulet and other classic French dishes were not enough to keep us straying from the tagine track. Both the lamb and beef tagines were the stuff of Moroccan heaven, performing a rocking Moroccan belly dance between restrained subtly peppered with the fragrant girth of braised dry fruits like figs, apricots and raisins. Again, cinnamon ruled the roost, but it seemed to gain a quiet momentum like a chorus to a Mozart masterpiece, building and building until a crescendo, forcing a mutual desire to clear our plates like greedy princes at a casbah.
The tagines come with a trio of “seasonal accompaniments” or what is billed on the appetizer menu as a “petit salad Moroccais“. We received a melange of vegetable wonders; standouts included the strangely tart/sweet and absolutely fabulous swirl of spaghetti squash and subdued, roasted whole beets. Remember folks, this comes with the meal!
Desserts, all $5.25, didn’t quite stand up to the tagines, but were not far off. A flaky pillow of crushed almonds and cinnamon wrapped in pastry was exceptional, if a bit chewy in spots. Fez’s cool, creamy creme brulee gets brushed with orange blossom water and an extra fine layer of browned sugar.
In all of its lusciousness, Fez is certainly a breath of fresh air upon the Charleston dining scene. Service was sincerely invested in the needs of its staff, if a bit green here and there. In the end, food got to the right person at the right time and with a smile and the intention to please. So, that’s what really counts. Hopefully, the staff will up the ante on its familiarity with the menu and its preparations as time marches on.
All culinary compasses point to Fez. Put it on your destination list. It’s a trip you’ll be happy you made.
Le Club Fez Francais et Moroccais
1956A Maybank Highway, James Island
Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.
Web site under development. The imminent address will be: http://www.leclubfez.com./
A former boss of mine, who possessed exceptional business acumen, was fond of the expression “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While the phase grated against my grammatically sensitive ears, it rang true in the relatively remote corners of my logical mind.
Buzzy Newton, Chairman of The Board of Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, and his wife, Rebecca Newton, clearly subscribe to the same theory. The 10 week-old co-owners of a decade’s old West Ashley restaurant mainstay, began with maintaining their new restaurant’s most recent moniker: Med Bistro. Even though most everyone thinks of it and even refers to it as its original name, Med Deli, Rebecca says “we wanted to leave it alone”.
Along with the name, they sagely kept broadly under-touted and gifted chef Todd Garrigan and maintain a strong focus on local artists and musicians by displaying their talents on the walls (100% of profits go to the artists) and in the restaurant in the form of live music performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and during Sunday brunch.
Rebecca took a proactive stance in streamlining the restaurant’s popular Bohemian look by enlisting the services of a local designer to select new, mustard colored paint for the walls and to strategically “position” the paintings for maximum eye appeal. The look, further enhanced by strings of twinkling white lights and a long bar adorned with sleek black chairs, is better than ever.
Under the Newton’s stewardship, the relaxed fun of paper-lined tables (and requisite crayons for drawing) have returned, and the spotty service this restaurant’s patrons have been burdened with for years has been replaced with a bubbly, energetic, well-synchronized team of professionals that work in tandem with the kitchen to deliver food on time and with a smile. The mettlesome, bad-service gnat that once settled heavily enough on my aching dining shoulders to to make me avoid the place altogether, is officially dead.
Ding, dong! Like Dorothy and her eclectic entourage after the Wicked Witch’s melting demise, we rejoiced in Med Bistro’s nurturing service rebirth. The well-groomed service team, dressed neatly and simply in black uniforms and armed with knowledge, oozed with positive energy and a desire and ability to please. Our server didn’t miss a beat until the end of our lunch experience when we were required to wait too long for the bill. Because the full lunch surge was beginning to retreat and, consequently, many tabs were likely being calculated all at once, this was excusable. Still, it’s an area where the Newton’s and their staff may want to pay additional attention, especially for the working business lunch crowd.
Garrigan’s maintained the winning, deli-intensive lunch menu of cold, deli-style sandwiches, soups (including the tasty, signature black bean soup), salads, grilled sandwiches, pockets, wraps and quesadillas, but has really beefed up the dinner menu with sophisticated bistro style fare from Cashew and Pistachio Crusted Salmon ($16.95) to the Center Cut Pork Chop served with Au Gratin Potatoes, Thin Beans & Apple Butter ($18.95). This expansion gives Med Bistro an evening breadth its never before experienced and gives Garrigan, a chance to “do his thing,” according to Buzzy.
One thing you can’t get after sundown, however, are the house chips ($4.95). They, in all of their proud calorie counter defiance, provide at least one outstanding reason to visit Med Bistro for lunch. The chips were prepared from wafer thin slices of Russet potatoes that were fried at perfect temperature for optimal crispiness. The chef crafts a bechamel-based sauce, whisked together with a mildly sweet blue cheese (my money says Roquefort) and generously spoons it over the entire platter of chips. I was concerned the offering might be or become soggy quickly unless the sauce was served on the side, but the server said, laughing, that it’s not usually a problem because “everyone always eats them so quickly”. Count me among the guilty.
Other good reasons to come are the fat, Grilled Reuben ($8.95) and Med Grill ($8.95) sandwiches. Both are literally stacked with inches of deli-grade meats and sweet/pungent kraut and slaw, respectively. They towered with excellence and heady, old-school indulgence that recalled the classic corner deli’s in Manhattan. Grill sandwiches (and there are 15 to choose from!) can be served with a choice of several sides or, if you really want to go the distance, try Med Bistro’s onion rings from heaven for a paltry, additional $0.95. Go for it! Life is way too short to miss this treat. They looked and tasted hand-battered (a rarity anywhere, anymore) and were sweet and smooth in the center and hot and crunchy on the outside.
Even though the days of buying wine by the bottle from a separate retail area, to be enjoyed in-house for a minor $1 corkage fee are over, the restaurant boasts a sophisticated domestic and imported beer list as well as a creative and surprisingly expansive wine list ($20-$62 by the bottle) for what is still, happily, a home time dining experience.
The Newton’s prove that old restaurants can be tweaked and updated without losing their soul. Med Bistro’s an enduring example.
90 Folly Road, South Windermere Plaza, West Ashley
Website under development.
Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Lunch served until 5 p.m., Dinner from 5 -10 p.m.)
Sun. brunch, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
The reigning king and queen of Charleston restaurant conceptualization have done it again.
Tim Mink and Karalee Nielsen of Rev Foods, which previously and deliciously brought us Poe’s Tavern, Raval and Taco Boy, have once again merged their minds and Rev’s exceptional talent pool to deliver just the right product, at just the right time, in just the right place and in just the right way. The uncannily on-the-mark result this time around the local restaurant fast track is called Monza. It proves to be a delectably edible ode to the justifiably celebrated Italian racetrack (by the same name) and the even more justifiably celebrated food that fuels Italian appetites – Neapolitan style pizza.
Co-owned by Mink and Nielsen and situated next door to its older, but fresh-as-ever restaurant sister, Raval, Monza is arguably the Ferrari of Rev’s impeccable restaurant pack. Or, maybe it just seems that way because Charleston has been in dire need of Grand Prix-grade Neapolitan pizza for a long, long time. While The Holy City is rich in the likes of fat, juicy burgers (a la Poe’s), tasty Mediterranean style tapas (a la Raval) and ample Mexican goodness (a la Taco Boy), it was entirely lacking servings of Neapolitan pizza’s subtle, sublime goodness hallmarked by a slim, chewy, and airy crust and deftly appointed, quality toppings. Monza’s delivers the added value of serving up the best pizza pies in town in a sleek, happening (and entirely spotless, by the way) setting.
The heat’s on in Monza’s kitchen, to the tune of 1,000 degrees in its eternal wood-burning oven. Oak is the wood of choice that drives the flavor and high heat behind the phenomenal texture and taste of Monza’s pizza dough. An instant puff in the oven ( just under 90 seconds for each pie) made with dough prepared with imported ingredients including San Felice wheat flour, Neapolitan yeast, and filtered, ph balanced water, kneaded tenderly together by a mixer from Naples, makes for remarkable crust after crust.
And, Monza doesn’t create the common small crime that its closest competitors are sometimes prone to – the dreaded sauce and topping pizza overload that leads to soupy, muddled and hard-to-eat pizza. The kitchen maintains idyllic restraint on quantity to maintain lightness, while doling out quality toppings in spades. Each pizza is topped with, among other things, milky, fiore di latte mozzarella and fresh, local produce and meats/seafood. In order to stay true to their Neapolitan mission, Monza does not allow ANY one to vary off course from the existing menu and says no to ALL substitutions.
All eight pizza choices ($9-$12) bear the names of racing greats from Alberto Ciccio Ascari to Emilio Materassi. You can read their brief bio’s on the menu or glance at one of the many black and white photos that grace Monza’s chic walls during your brief wait for what’s sure to be a memorable pizza experience. Mine was! The “Ciccio” ($12) is Monza’s version of a four-cheese or white pizza and came gingerly dressed with a bubbling blend of mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino and parmesan cheese and a heady perfume of garlic-infused olive oil. Talk about uncommonly good – it met its match in the “Fangio” ($12). This was a sweet/hot hit prepared with mozzarella, housemade sausage, roasted local hot peppers, a thin layer of a peppery tomato sauce, onions and garlic, too.
While you’re munching on the pizza, don’t miss an opportunity to soak up the playful, tasteful decor of tangerine colored rectangular glass tiles and hand-crafted zebra wood tables and booths. The shiny, white, aluminum Navy chairs look imposing at first, but have curved seats that are comfortably accommodating and really complete the neat look of the place. The mostly female service staff was dressed in prim, Euro-style black dresses cinched curtly at the waist with black aprons. Our waitress was eager to inform and to please and, as an extra special bonus, admitted when she didn’t know an answer to a question, then scurried off to find it.
With pizza this good, appetizers might seem like an afterthought, but don’t make that mistake. The clams casino ($6) feature sweet, local clams topped with butter and wine-prepped bread crumbs peppered with a delicate confetti of pancetta and red peppers. They don’t get better than this. Neither does Monza’s Italian version of southern shrimp and grits. A special for the evening ($8), it was laced with plump, absolutely local shrimp cooked to opaque perfection and swimming in a sausage-pregnant tomato gravy on top of a creamy, smooth pool of finely-ground polenta. Like the restaurant, the wine list, too, is well-thought out, well-priced and well-done.
Even though Monza delivers the real Neapolitan pizza deal, it only does so in-house. So, go, eat, drink and be merry. Monza’s offers some of the freshest reasons to do so that I’ve come across in a while.
451 King Street, downtown
Open daily, 11 a.m.-until
(Website under development)
It’s easy to miss, but fans of bona fide Cuban fare will not want to lose an opportunity to revel in El Bohio’s simple yet tasty delights. And, unlike American-to-Cuban commerce on the island nation, it’s legal here and doesn’t require travel or a pesky passport. What more can you ask for?
Except for a more prominent sign indicating its unassuming presence (look on the other side of the road as you’re approaching The Terrace theatre shopping center on Maybank Highway), El Bohio is lacking for absolutely nothing. The food is modestly priced (entrees range from $4.50 to $10.50) and packed with the plantain and black-bean flavors of Cuba, service is pleasant (though sometimes slow), and the humble, beachy mood of the place works in spot-on tandem with the entirely happy El Bohio experience.
Considering that it was the brainchild of a first generation Cuban-American, raised on the kitchen creations of her Cuban parents in Cuban-cultured Miami, this should really come as no surprise. Owner Vanessa Luis Harris, a Johnson and Wales University grad, and her husband Alex state her story and their mission on the back of the single-page, laminated menu: “We chose (the name) El Bohio (pronounced El Bo-ee-oo) because it translates to a simple, humble, peasant home with sand floors and thatched roofing. I want to serve you foods that (are) eaten in these traditional Cuban homes.”
Except for its sand-free floors, El Bohio accomplishes all this and more, right down to the semi-circle thatched roofs that decorate the diminutive space and the cigar boxes on every table where they do creative double-time as condiment and salt and pepper shaker containers. An antique oak bar is the fanciest thing about the place, but rather than “jumping out” it seems right at home and makes for a perfect perch to dig into one of the restaurant’s fine sandwiches – which happen to be prepared with dough that’s purchased from a Cuban bakery in Miami and baked on the premises – and a cold brew. It’s so incredibly Cuban and deliciously homey, it’s easy to believe that even Fidel himself would give El Bohio his stamp of approval.
I most certainly do, and though I like everything about the place, I’m especially fond of the endearing little Papas Rellenes ($3.50) which sounds infinitely less sexy in English, a language which ineptly deems them “Beef Stuffed Potato Balls”. Like luck, they come in three’s, but are so fabulously palatable I was yearning for easily five times that amount. An appetizer of the highest order, the potato balls are formed with real (no powdered variety here), fluffy mashed potatoes with a spicy, ground beef and gravy center. They’re enveloped with a crunchy, breadcrumb coating, deep fried and served with El Bohio’s ubiquitous dipping sauce which has a glorious, garlicky kick rounded out with oil and a splash of vinegar and a hit of lime.
The sandwiches are some of the best I’ve sampled in Charleston – bar none. That’s due in large part to the superb bread and the superb fillings, the heart and soul of any exceptional sandwich. Pork and turkey fillings are real (again!) not the processed and pressed versions that are rampant in even the least suspected places, and roasted, with love, in-house. The Cuban sandwich ($6.75) and Medio Dia (“Mid-day”, $6.75) were edible testimonies to Cuban goodness, both punctuated with salty pickles and pungent mustard and more of that that fabulous dipping sauce which is appropriately called the “house mojo”.
Sandwiches come with a bevy of side choices including black beans, sweet or savory plantains, rice, a tomato and onion salad and, of course, French fries. Scratch the latter alternative, which you can get anywhere, and opt for the satisfying, firm-yet-yielding goodness of the black beans, splashed with a lime and sauteed onion background or bite into a crunchy, starchy savory plantain chip.
If a tastier, more pleasant prelude or chaser to a viewing of an artsy, Indie-type film across the street at The Terrace exists, I don’t know of it. But, then, El Bohio provides plenty of reasons to stop by any old time the mood for good food and a good time strikes.
1977 Maybank Highway, James Island
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat., noon- 9 p.m.
A single crepe is a thing of beauty. But, take 20 silky crepes, layered with whisper-thin cushions of flavored pastry cream and whipped cream, and you arrive at something extra special. Jack and Rachel Byrne of Charleston Crepe Company have done just that. Their 9″ wide towering confections come in three flavors; vanilla, chocolate and mocha cream. Each yummy, hand-crafted cake serves 10-12 persons at $50 a pop, or an easy $5 or less per yummy, fat slice .
Each and every concoction maintains a perfect balance of smooth, flavored pastry cream and fluffy whipped cream – both lovingly folded into pure decadence of edible delight. The cakes come topped with a thin, crunchy bite of caramelized sugar for a mild “brulee effect” for idyllic texture contrast. The flavor is incredibly delicate – reminiscent of a cream puff – and the lightness of the cakes is exceptional.
Potential true show-stoppers at a wedding, tea, or for a crowd pleasing dessert just about any time or place, Charleston Crepe Company’s crepe cakes can be ordered by calling Rachel or Jack at (843) 573-3458. Visit http://www.charlestoncrepecompany.com/ for more information.