RESTAURANT REVIEW: Le Club Fez 

Sultans of Spice: Le Club Fez piles it on, to mostly great effect

Le Club Fez
French/Moroccan
(843) 406-2767
1956 Maybank Hwy., James Island
Entrées $15-$20
Dinner

Francais ou Moroccais? That is the question. At least at Le Club Fez, the newest creation of culinary globetrotter David Leboutillier, whose various developments — Poe's, Raval, Taco Boy — if all gathered around Marion Square, could probably rival Disney's Epcot Center. Like some throwback to European colonial expansion, Fez bridges the straits of Gibraltar with an authentic take on the Western maghreb as seen through the lens of French domination. Duck liver terrines, snails, and cassoulets full of confit mingle with slow-cooked tagines overflowing with exotic spice — spiced almonds, Moroccan chickpea soup, and drizzles of the little known and exorbitantly expensive Argan oil anoint big plates of ethnic fare.

For such a distinctive style, in a town overrun with blasé contemporary American fare, all this comes at an incredibly reasonable price. Tagines full of melting meats, fruits, and spice range from $16 to $18. The lamb tagine piles figs, apricots, almonds, and shallots over a succulent shank, the chicken version smacks with the mysterious tang of preserved lemons, and the beef short ribs braised in red wine and tomatoes sound rather continental, until your tastebuds hit the golden raisins and cinnamon spice. If there's a knock on these, it's that they are occasionally heavy-handed with that entire flavor. Performance wavers between tagines capable of numbing your tongue — some combination tasting of cardamom, cinnamon, and other nuances of Arabia applied so thickly that the meat is all but lost — and instances of complete success, the same dish being perfectly balanced. The entire selection could probably benefit from more couscous underneath and a defter hand with the sauce reductions. After all, the staple grain serves as the foundation of the meal in a country where meat comes at a premium, and that precious meat is rarely abundant enough to handle the syrupy over-reduction of French court cuisine, which weasels its way into the Moroccan side of Fez's hybrid kitchen. But since the place makes no bones about being French and Moroccan, who are we to complain?

More mainstream platters — steak and fries anyone? — serve well those averse to the highly seasoned fare. You can get poached salmon, a regular fish of the day, and even a plain old (and expensive) hamburger. They have clearly studied the market, researched the cuisine (it's no coincidence that Chef John Marshall, formerly of Al Di La, took an extended trip to Morocco last year), and developed a menu that will appeal to a variety of diners.

For me, it came down to the potato chips. Not the ordinary, mass-produced, wipe-the-grease-on your-trousers-while-riding-down-the-road-drinking-a-Blenheim-ginger ale kind, but the fancy-shmancy ones that cost 10 times what the potato cost because the skin was left on and they were cut with a real knife. The latter are not all that rare; Magnolias has been dishing up the perfect mid-afternoon snack for years in the form of fresh-fried chips loaded down with blue cheese and scallions — and such "house made" attempts at turning an ordinary, pedestrian staple into "gourmet" fare usually draws a crowd. It's a wonder that fancy potato chips and deep-fried turkey aren't blanketing the white tablecloth joints this time of year, but you could search the whole Lowcountry, clear up to Louis Osteen's place at the gateway to the Grand Strand and down to the Squat and Gobble in Bluffton, and not find anything to match the experience of eating "Gaufrettes with Aoili" at Le Club Fez.

They're super cool if for no other reason than they've been passed through some elaborate waffle cutting device that results in a perfect filigree — long, warped, golden, and crispy. Eating these with some garlicky mayonnaise in the darkened room near the carved wooden screens that separate the bar area from the dining room, seems to personify what Fez is all about.

You come here to live fantastically — and I think this is true of many of Leboutillier's efforts — to explore not just a region, but a remembrance of that place in a certain historical context. We are transported into an exotic history, not through political means, but by culinary association. Steamed mussels appear a la Francais or Moroccais, with the spice of the orient perfuming the latter. The Berber mingles among the Kefta, grilled skewers of veal that might have come from a desert campfire in the Eastern hills of Morocco. It is peasant food, the simple cuisine of the poor mariner at the great ocean's edge or a camel herder setting sail from the arid Sahel into the sandy unknown — but augmented to produce a particular nostalgia, even romance.

This should bode well for Fez, even if it is tucked into a location with a history of failure. There's something about Southerners that attracts them to upscale reinventions of grease-bomb diners and "country French bistros" like flies to an electric blue bug-zapper. There should be no reason why Fez can't translate that energy into a Francophiled version of North African cuisine. They will need to keep the spice under control, but I think we have ourselves another winner.

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