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For some, the word "fez" might conjure up romantic images of the ancient Moroccan city of Fez with its walled medina and medieval mosques, the setting for Paul Bowles' brilliant, intricate novel The Spider's House. Others might picture my hero Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari, wearing a fez and swatting flies as Ingrid Bergman seeks his help in Casablanca. Or maybe you'll recall the cover of the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist, featuring a photo of plump Caucasian Shriners in their red felt fezzes, motoring by in comical little cars.
On this scale, with Morocco's spiritual and cultural capital at one extreme and Frankenchrist on the other, the new Central Avenue eatery FEZ is way smack down on the Frankenchristend. Brought to us in part by the folks responsible for Scottsdale's Ibiza Cafe, this style-conscious, AZ 88-ish restaurant bills itself as "American fare with Moroccan flair," though the reality is more reminiscent of Jack in the Box offering a ciabatta burger, or Arby's hawking a gyro.
Generally, this cultural appropriation is fanciful, and as innocent as green beer on St. Patrick's Day. The conceit itself extends only to FEZ's menu, which swipes place names and foodie terms relevant to the Middle East, not to the interior decor of the place, a hip mlange of browns, greens and grays with tables of burnt orange and a bar that's colorfully backlit at night. It's a pleasant enough ambiance when the sound system's not blaring some annoying, high-pitched electronica, as it was on a couple of my visits. And it's a welcome oasis of gentility in an area for the most part bereft of such chic-ness, save for the Camus bar and restaurant in the nearby Clarendon Hotel. In short, FEZ is all Scottsdale, despite its location, and about as far from any kasbah as you can get.
3815 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Region: Central Phoenix
3815 North Central Avenue, 602-287-8700.
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Limited menu after 11 p.m.
Why, then, am I ticked at a bill of fare that boasts frivolities like a Casablanca chicken sandwich, spicy harissa fries, Touareg toasts and a Tangier burger? Sounds like what they might sell at a Burger King in Marrakech, eh? True, some of FEZ's food is not bad, and I may choose to eat there again considering that it serves a limited late-night menu past 11 p.m. and considering the paucity of dining options in that area. But I'd trade 100 FEZes for one, just one hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern place along the same stretch of road. As is, I normally end up hoofing it to Fattoush on 19th Avenue north of Indian School Road when I need to satisfy a craving for hummus, lamb shank or couscous. And so FEZ's menu is a constant reminder that it's just another trendy grub shack, not a version of Fattoush on Central -- what I'd really like to see if I had my druthers.
FEZ's kitchen does attempt some sincere experiments in culinary crossover from Middle Eastern to American cuisine. Unfortunately, these tend to be colossal failures, highlighting the inadequacy of these same efforts. The worst item is the shrimp, eggplant and mushroom kibis, a riff off Lebanese and Syrian kibbeh, which in its native form can be sort of a spicy-savory Middle Eastern meatball, with ground lamb mixed with bulgur wheat into what sometimes looks like a little brown football. FEZ's "kibis" are flat, tasteless crab-cake-like thingees, devoid of spice, and they made me long for the kibbeh I've had at the legendary Lebanese joint Wahib's in Alhambra due east of L.A. Not that there's anything wrong with borrowing the idea of kibbeh, if your take on it is at least as tasty as the original. But FEZ blows it here, and it's not the only time.
FEZ's couscous was so dry, so like a mouthful of sawdust, that it made me want to cry. It's served beneath the grilled salmon, a fine piece of fish, with a sweet apricot-honey glaze, and this I gobbled greedily. But when I got to the couscous, I was crestfallen. Although the kitchen had added pistachios and dried apricots to the grains of semolina, this was not the fluffy, magnificent couscous of the now-defunct Algerian establishment Delicious Couscous, once in the spot where Fattoush is now. Nor even the savory couscous that Fattoush cooks up. Rather, FEZ's couscous was a travesty, one I sampled on two occasions to make certain the poor quality was consistent.
Enter FEZ's hummus on the list of mistakes, as palatable as chickpea peanut butter, if there were such a product. Pretty much every Mediterranean/Middle Eastern place in town does it better. And the almond-crusted tilapia over a bed of lentils was truly grotesque, the fish completely mushy beyond the candy-bar-like coating. However, the chicken phyllo packets, pastry squares stuffed with a mixture of chicken, feta and spinach, were terribly scrumptious, though I wish the roasted pepper aioli had been somewhat piquant. As for the lamb chops with dollops of pesto sauce, I've rarely met a lamb chop I didn't relish devouring, and these puppies were no exception.
Usually I loathe Americanized lettuce wraps, a concept poached from some Asian cuisines, but FEZ deserves credit for pulling it off. Its "wraps" are spears of fresh romaine, and you fill them with an appetizing salad of minced chicken, almonds, dried cherries and dates in a pomegranate vinaigrette. The Touareg toasts are nothing special, just overlong crostini and a couple of spreads, overpriced at $9.50 a plate. The soups? Adequate, if not stellar: tomato lentil, based loosely on Moroccan harira; and a cumin cinnamon carrot that shows promise, if FEZ's cooks were ever to truly let loose with the spices.