Fez in Central Phoenix Plays It Safe But Gets It Right

I have two questions: When did every American male under the age of 30 start sporting a beard, and why don't I eat at Fez more often?

I can't answer the first of these, nor do I especially care to. But I can tell you that the answer to the second is "I plan to, from now on."

I'd stopped dining at Fez not long after it opened on Central Avenue a few years ago. The music was too loud and, although I found their pesto Caesar first-rate, I don't enjoy eating in a disco. I got my pesto Caesar salad to go, when I ate there at all. But Fez has relocated, moving into the former Portland's space just off Central Avenue. Friendly, easy service (most of it from young, bearded guys), a nice wide patio for dining, and an open indoor dining room and bar are no longer enough. Given the number of restaurants and diners opening all over town -- places with high-end tasting menus, crafted cocktails and gimmickry based on locally grown everything -- any restaurant, old or new, needs to offer some real reason to return.

See also: Steak 44 in Phoenix Wins With Seafood and Falls Short on Steak

Fez does, and it has less to do with its hip, neatly appointed new space than its fresh, interesting food. Someone has turned the volume down on the Demi Lovato dance mix and turned it up on the small but appetizing lunch and dinner menu. There's nothing fancy here, although executive chef Tom Jetland's use of ingredients suggests an understanding of how simple, fresh flavors can make uncomplicated dishes distinctive.

Every dish has been designed to satisfy the masses. French fries are still all the rage around here, and Fez's big basket is available in four different flavors. I ordered half spicy harissa fries and half salt-and-pepper, and nearly ruined my appetite eating the whole huge bowl. Crisp and hot and hearty, both were superb starters. Chilled lettuce wraps were a fine companion to these hot-and-spicy frites and came stuffed with moist, grilled chicken alongside dried pears, dates, and cherries, nestled into cold romaine cups. On a second visit, I started with ho-hum, too-chewy nazare calamari that was served with a nice roasted pepper aioli, which was also featured in the chicken phyllo packets that followed. This is a decadent appetizer gooey with rich feta jammed into crisp-baked phyllo along with spinach and spicy chicken.

The tomato taza is easy eating for anyone on a diet: a simple salad of fresh greens, slices of tomato, cucumber, and olives spooned with balls of soft mozzarella dressed with pesto. Fez still serves that pesto Caesar, a tasty charmer tossed with toasted pistachios and housemade croutons.

There are, of course, the obligatory burgers. The best of them is the Tangier burger, which dresses ground steak with hummus and manchego cheese on a fresh, springy ciabatta bun and a colossal side salad tossed in lemon vinaigrette. Kisras are a nice alternative to sandwiches, and with their various combinations of fresh mozzarella, pesto, and chicken, these flatbread pizzas and their accompanying lemon field salad easily serve two.

Although Fez's menu mostly plays it safe, as with a rich and creamy coconut yellow curry with sautéed zucchini, carrot, and peppers, Jetland occasionally goes crazy, as with the arroz con pollo, which coats sautéed chicken, peppers, and onions in a spicy tomato sauce, then dumps it all over citrus saffron rice (I ordered mine extra spicy, which it wasn't, but still sublime). I was less happy with the go green pasta, which tops al dente penne with a nice, lemony pesto sauce and crispy spring vegetables; the crunchy texture of zucchini and carrots seemed all wrong. The Fez Fit, a sort of hipster diet plate, was a snooze: grilled chicken (one can also order a black bean patty or gyros strips) came with a scoop of citrus saffron rice, a pile of just-okay roasted vegetables, and unremarkable grilled pita bread.

Jetland takes the same standards-with-style route with his brunch fare, and mostly succeeds. The Fez Benedict pairs poached eggs on French bread with ham, manchego cheese, and oven-dried tomatoes, and smothers them in a creamy Hollandaise sauce that's just right for dipping crispy roasted potatoes into. The Fez hotcakes are large and fluffy and come two to a stack; I ordered mine with an egg on top and some superb roasted potatoes in place of hash browns. Less exciting was something titled "the best egg white omelette you'll ever have," which was not; there's an object lesson in there somewhere about naming menu items.

Desserts lean to such things as chocolate brownies and tiramisu, and all are perfectly agreeable. Day or night, cocktailers share nibbles from a separate menu, some of which can be ordered in the main dining room at a slightly higher price. Fez's waitstaff are just warm enough that they seem to care about what you're ordering, and just haughty enough to be, well, waiters in a popular upscale diner that's really gotten it right. There are no huge chances being taken at Fez, but neither is chance-taking the point.

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