Sadly, one of Portland’s most accessible-to-white-people vestiges of its Somali population, Hamdi Restaurant and Grocery, faded into the darkness sometime over the last several months. This is as much my fault as anyone’s; I knew of its greatness, and did little to prevent its decline.
But fear not, lovers of African cuisine. Fez, a Moroccan joint, a heaven, if you will, of stewed meats and rices and expertly seasoned everything, has sprung up to replace it.
Don’t let its lack of belly dancers, lack of decor, even lack of adequate seating deter you, oh intrepid diners.
It’s had a face life since it was Hamdi, the walls now painted bright orange, the flat screen TV playing the Travel Channel (Man vs. Food, no less), and the speakers blaring Lebanese pop (Nancy Ajram, Alissa, Haifa Wehbe style, for those who know of what I speak). The left-side segment of the building, where most of the tables and the grocery were when it was Hamdi, have been portioned off and it is for rent. Maybe the Hamdi people will be back and we’ll be able to have dueling meals from East and West Africa. The tables are decorated with nondescript salt and pepper shakers and small glass vases with purple flowers. I didn’t inspect their veracitude. It doesn’t really matter.
Despite its unassuming (to say the least) ambiance, and casually-dressed staff, and relative emptiness (the three of us were dining simultaneously with a couple, also on their first trip, though a few other parties trickled in as the nine o’clock hour ticked nearer), the food was unparalleled. As the first Moroccan place in Portland that I know of, there’s no bar to speak of, but Fez is setting it high for any successors.
I like to think I am somewhat of an expert in Middle Eastern, African, and Mediterranean food, having lived in the Levant and traveled around southern Europe. I’ve eaten at my fair share of Ethiopian and Moroccan restaurants, and have somewhat of a handle on what the food is supposed to taste like. (Still, the best Moroccan food I ever had was in Montpelier, France, where they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Arabic — I’ve since learned the language — and we ordered haphazardly by pointing at things and parsing through French-Arabic hybrid menu items. It was divine.)
We started with the shrimp sharmoula (a North African spice blend) appetizer, and falafel tahini on a bed of lettuce (iceberg) and tomatoes with an actually sensational yogurt dressing. I am a huge falafel snob, and considering falafel isn’t exactly a Moroccan dish, I still think this was one of the if not the best renderings of the Levantine standby in Maine, with the exception of the falafel my roommate Nick makes in his frydaddy with my candy thermometer. Fez’s is not quite what it should be, but good nonetheless. It was particularly well balanced when scooped with the provided bread and a dash of tahini. The sharmoula-ed tomato sauce the shrimp was in reminded me of galayya bandora (fried tomatoes), a Syrian/Jordanian/Palestinian/Lebanese dish made with tons of garlic, spices, cilantro, and tomatoes (obviously). It was exactly how I remembered it, bringing me back to West Amman kitchens where we were unceasingly fed better food than I think I have ever had.
We were engaged in conversation with the owner, a Moroccan native who previously owned three (I think) restaurants in St. Albans, VT, and has lived up and down the East Coast with his wife and kids. He told us what they were out of (the lamb entree and chicken and beef kebab), but recommended in their stead the beef barkouk (plum, in Arabic) and the kofta kebab (kofta is a grilled meatball with spices and herbs). Dad and I ordered these, the Mom got chicken sakhan (hot, or sautéeed, in Arabic). All were unique, phenomenally seasoned, juicy, and tasted homemade. They were; the owner had launched into a description of how he grinds the beef for the kofta and mixes in all its ingredients, leaving the fresh cilantro till the end, each day.
The beef barkouk came as two large chunks of stewed beef on a plate, covered with the sweet, spicy sauce and topped with raisins and onions and some other things. It was also supposed to come with toasted sesame seeds, but he forgot to put them on, running out of the kitchen to try to rectify his mistake. “Next time.” Because, of course, there will have to be a next time. It was rich, sweet but not too much so, tender, juicy, and of incredibly balanced flavor; cinnamon for sure, but I wouldn’t dare guess what else.
The chicken sakhan was pieces of white and dark meat chicken sauteed with copious onions and spices, almost a bit citrusy, and if I had to guess I would say coriander, turmeric, probably cinnamon, among others.
The kofta (full disclosure: I make my own, but with lamb) was quite good, particularly with the tahini it came dressed with. Some meatballs were more well-done than others. I prefer the rarer ones, but all were incredibly well seasoned and despite being stuffed after one I proceeded methodically through two more. With the rice and salad, it felt nourishing, if not a particularly adventurous combination of flavors. Though I’m sure if you’re not used to to such strongly flavored patties of ground beef, you’d find them zinging and singing through your tastebuds at unprecedented velocity. Highly recommended.
Our neighbors at the table next to us had the chicken tagine which came as a leg and thigh and served with potatoes, other vegetables and a garnish of cilantro. They said it was delicious, and I’ll believe them.
And of course, we can’t forget the rice; a white basmati seasoned and spiced, complex and flavorful. It was distinct from the rices of the eastern Mediterranean which are cooked with cardamom and cinnamon, and often in chicken or meat stocks. They are heavy and nourishing. This was lighter in flavor, paralleling more the flavors you might expect with a couscous than a rice, but was rich, smooth, and utterly amazing nonetheless. It brought even more complexity to the seasoned meats, but I would have been content to just eat a bowlful with labaneh (thick Middle Eastern yogurt).
The menu also features a white bean and garlic dip as an appetizer, a selection of soups including lentil, and hilib ari, a goat stew served with rice, whose menu description reminded me, cyclically, of the overly generous portions of goat stew served over rice I used to get at Hamdi.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Fez. We’ll be back.