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./