227 Summer St., Stamford, (203) 975-0479, www.thefez1.com
Stamford’s explosive restaurant scene just keeps popping. Once a desolate, vaguely soulless city, this corporate hub has become a haven for international dining, and nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than on “little” Summer Street, the final block of the road that intersects with Main Street and Columbus Park. Today, this section of the city includes the pioneer farm-to-table and very high-end Napa & Co., and a Barcelona outpost that serves this culinary group’s now legendary Spanish tapas plates. Further down the road, an Indian bread bar known as Tawa and the classic Italian eatery, Ferrante, hold court. Beyond these are Mexican, Japanese, and American pub-style spots. What’s got everybody talking right now, though, is a hot little Moroccan bistro that delivers on ambience and live music as much as it does on exotic cuisine.
Owner Eric Monte, a former music industry professional who grew up in Greenwich, is determined to bring something to Stamford’s table that hasn’t been seen before, and he’s succeeding. There are some dishes served here you won’t find anywhere else in Fairfield County, and others you won’t find done better. When was the last time you were offered crispy fried chickpeas and okra, dusted with cumin, as a snack? You’ll never look at French fries the same way again. Sag and feta rolls with harissa (Tunisian hot chili sauce) mayonnaise offer another example of the singular appetizer options here from a menu that covers the Mediterranean and Middle East from Morocco to Lebanon and Israel. There are falafels and kebabs, hummus and lamb chops, all fragrantly seasoned and adorned with spice-route flavors like coriander, saffron, cumin, and even ajvar, a Serbian relish. Beyond the expected, adventurous diners can try Zaatar chicken, rubbed with a spice blend of sumac, thyme, roasted sesame seeds, marjoram, oregano and sea salt, and served with a bread salad and sumac-braised onions. Or sample a swordfish or meatball tagine. These one-dish meals are cooked in a traditional Moroccan pottery vessel, akin to a personal tandoor.
Vegetarians looking for a change should head straight to The Fez for roasted butternut squash with flamed haloumi (a cheese made from a mix of goat and sheep milk), watercress and pistachios or roasted eggplant soup with pickled grapes, shallot crisps and curry oil. Straightforward and exotically spiced grilled veggie platters and salads like roasted beet with grapefruit, chicory, Moroccan olives, and feta are also among a host of options available for the meat-averse.
While the food here is just plain cool, it’s matched and maybe even outdone by the vibe. There’s just nothing about the place that says Fairfield County. More like the Lower East Side in Manhattan, the place hums with a creative energy that starts with Monte himself, whose steady presence lets diners in on his passion for the place. The tattoo’d, buxom, ballsy, and impossibly charming bartender Kristin will remember your drink on the second visit. Ushering in serious artists from all corners of the musical globe, a warm and free-spirited musical environment sets The Fez steadfastly apart from the cover band-heavy musical scene in Fairfield County.
Musicians constantly wander in with their instruments to inquire, play, or just hang out with their friends. On any given day, groups of hipsters and artists, couples young and old, families with children and neighborhood folks can be seen hunched over bowls of harissa soup with preserved lemon and listening to a jazz band from New York City on Sunday or Monday, or the singer-songwriters open mic on Wednesday. Got any old albums lying around? Grab them and head to The Fez on Tuesdays for BYOV(inyl) night. Looking for something exotic to match the menu? Thursdays often feature a belly dancer along with ethnic music. Aside from an occasional DJ, every single night is live music night at The Fez.
Between Monte and his right-hand music man, Nick Sproviero, who’s credited with discovering Sugar Ray, this sexy little hole-in-the-wall gives customers the distinct feeling that at any moment some legend from the music world could walk through the door, order the lamb-stuffed cabbage leaves with mint yogurt, and discover the next great star.