FOOD: Fez's lamb tagine 

Moroccan Magic: Fez's lamb tagine makes a spicy statement

Lamb Tagine
$18.95
Le Club Fez
1956 Maybank Hwy.(843) 406-2767
Dinner

If there had to be a signature dish at Le Club Fez, it would almost certainly be the lamb tagine. It arrives in its eponymous serving vessel — a shallow clay dish with a lid that seems to have a chimney rising from its center. As the server lifts the lid a heady rush of warm spices greets the senses, and it's easy to understand how this is one of the most popular dishes at Fez.

Managing partner Craig Nelson and Chef Bryan Lindsay say the lamb outsells the other tagines by a landslide. But obviously the real intrigue of this quintessential Moroccan dish goes far beyond the strip mall environs of Fez.

The tradition of tagine cooking dates back to north Africa's nomadic tribes, who made the vessels from the readily available supply of sand. They would cook meats and vegetables in the tagine over the embers of their campfires — seasoning them heavily, a lack-of-refrigeration necessity.

Such a totally foreign cuisine can be difficult to understand through mere reading, and that's where Chef John Marshall stepped into the picture. Marshall (founder of Al di La) had always wanted to visit Morocco, and in March 2007 he finally made that dream a reality. Upon his return, Marshall's friend David Leboutillier approached him about consulting on a small, intimate restaurant location. The concept had yet to be decided, and Marshall immediately suggested French-Moroccan. His inspiration came from his recent trip and from the movie Casablanca where an American expatriate runs a cafe in French-occupied Morocco. For Fez, Marshall imagined a French chef rather than an American bar owner, and from there the idea took off.

Clearly, much of the beauty in Fez comes from Marshall's firsthand experiences. He remembers stepping off the plane in Marrakesh and being overwhelmed by the intoxicating fragrance of the orange trees in blossom. He also remembers eating tagine — every day. He witnessed the contemporary tagine custom, which does not differ that much from olden times. Early in the morning women take their dough to the baker to be baked in a wood burning oven for most of the day. Later in the day they will bring in their tagines to cook on the fire's embers.

Marshall says that a typical meal would consist of a variety of starters — kemia — and then sharing tagines. He experienced one home-cooked dinner where the entire meal was eaten in the most customary way — with hands. However, most restaurants he visited offered a bit more Western take on Moroccan cuisine, providing utensils and serving the tagine in a decorative dish (not the cooking vessel).

At Fez they also take this Western approach to tagine cooking. The meat is braised ahead of time in hotel pans and then finished with dried fruits and such before serving it in the tagine. Marshall composed the menu, and Lindsay further developed the recipes. For the lamb tagine, they start with all-natural Iowa lamb shoulder and braise it in white wine, lamb stock, and a mélange of spices (like cardamom, cumin, star anise, and others). They finish the dish with dried figs, apricots, almonds, and Argan oil. This Moroccan specialty comes from the fruits of the rare Argan tree and has a flavor similar to walnut oil.

All of the tagines are served with a trio of salads that Marshall conceived as a nod to the kemia that are eaten throughout a traditional Moroccan meal. They are light and simple, ranging from carrot with garlic and cilantro to grapefruit with fennel and olives. Having them alongside the seductive lamb tagine does seem to evoke another place, maybe not a campfire in North Africa but perhaps a remake of Casablanca with a culinary twist.

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