At Fez, a new Moroccan restaurant on South Beach’s Española Way, your meal’s aromas reach your table before the food does.
That’s a real treat when the sweet-savory smells of baked cinnamon and caramelized onion from bastilla waft from chef-owner Faycal “Fez” Bettioui’s kitchen. He elevates the dish — a round of phyllo traditionally stuffed with chicken or squab — by using duck cooked in its own fat.
But it’s a real disappointment when aromas foreshadow past-its-prime lobster wedged into an otherwise pitch-perfect couscous salad. We finished the chilled, fluffy couscous tossed with tomatoes and cucumber, pushing aside a lobster claw that didn’t pass the sniff test.
Bettioui and his small but eager staff mostly succeed at giving customers a pleasant taste of his native Morocco.
The all-white dining room at Fez, located on the west end of Española, projects Casablanca and other black-and-white classics onto a wall behind the bar. Diners nibble on complimentary olives spiced with smoked paprika and cumin, and all desserts come with sweet mint tea, a Moroccan mealtime staple.
Pork is nowhere to be found on the menu, but it’s not missed, especially when replaced by lamb in dishes like a slow-cooked slab of lamb belly (a trend to watch this year). The belly’s crisp outside gives way to tender meat, served with a pomegranate glaze and celery root puree.
Artful presentations abound, like a paintbrush swipe of striking black garlic “ink” across a plate of meaty, flavorful grilled octopus, refreshing shaved fennel and creamy saffron aioli. A beef kebab entree features a skewer of grilled tenderloin dangling from a metal holder.
Fez’s hot and cold small plates are better to share and more interesting than the entrees, many of which come with the same sides of roasted fingerling potatoes and steamed vegetables. An entree highlight: Chicken tagine is a soul-warming bowl of braised thighs and legs in a briny, savory sauce of olives, preserved lemon and schmaltz.
Ingredients shine in dishes like a simple tomato and feta salad, bright with the acid of local yellow, green and red heirlooms and sweetened with micro mint. Chickpea fries — ground garbanzos mixed with water, shaped into little logs and given a quick plunge in the deep-fryer — are airy, light and worth an order.
A trio of dips — roasted red pepper, smoky eggplant and hummus — is pretty and tasty, but too small for our group of four to share. The plate of dips also showcases a Fez frustration: The pita is store-bought and stale.
With bread such a cornerstone of Moroccan meals, why not make the effort to dough up some homemade batbout or khobz before service? It would be a better use of kitchen time than the considerable prepping that must go into a fussy and out-of-place foie gras appetizer.
Besides the lobster couscous, the only dish that failed to please was the lamb merguez, a too-dry, crumbly link of sausage served floating in a tomato sauce with over-poached egg whites.
Servers are friendly and keep those pita baskets coming — a good thing on busy nights, when the waits between courses can drag on.
On one visit, our server seemed to anticipate delays. We tried to order appetizers while we decided on entrees, but he politely asked us to place our entire order at once. “It will be easier on the kitchen,” he explained.
Fair enough. I’m happier to see Fez busy than empty. In an alley that’s long been a haven for somewhat ambiguous ethnic food, a Moroccan chef running a Moroccan restaurant is a good pull for Española Way.
If Bettioui keeps cooking his native cuisine with eye-catching presentations and true-to-tradition flavors, he should have a packed house every night. People will follow the aromas.