Fez bringing the Morocco to the Maine.

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.

Red White and Blue. With Love.

This holiday is already bad enough, what with the drunkards out in full force and not even pizza shops open to save them from their own inanity.

Why I felt the need to indulge in my bitter, self-righteous loneliness and complete unfeelingness twoards this day of eminent pointlessness (my uncaring is so strong I even had to hover over the Goog-icon until my Homer Simpson “doh” moment hit) is beyond me. Maybe sometimes you really just need that tiny push, that extra excuse, to grab a six of mediocre belgian-style wheat beer and two-day-old strawberry shortcake. Well, the strawberries were already macerated so it’s not as if I put any effort into this fandango.

What are we celebrating, anyway? The day a bunch of old (now dead) white guys signed a crinkling piece of parchment, announcing their grand intentions to cease, and I mean absolutely desist, paying any more representation-free taxes to the oppressive colonial powers that be? What, so we’re celebrating some version of our libertarian roots? Hallelujah.

Besides, it seems terribly ironic to celebrate what is ostensibly a holiday about America and freedom and independence and over-indulgence when ships full of people are being detained (for example) in Greek ports (yet another irony, o bastion, motherland of democracy) en route to protest against the inhuman suffering of one group of people at the hands of another, far more powerful group of people.

O, the humanity.

Woe, the humanity.

Independence from nothing but our own moral compasses and human responsibility. I’ll drink to that.

Diatribe from an average moment in life.

So the day got thrown into a pit of hell when I read my horoscope at the coffee shop and it was only three stars. THREE STARS. I don’t want a three star day. Anyway. Although I do have enough for a free coffee now (like, next time, or whatever).

Some Masshole totally cut me off when I was driving, and I honked and him, and he gave me the whole hands in the air “what?! fuck you!” attitude. Fuck him.

And then, I had this awesomely delicious spinach feta croissant that I only had three bites of, and I had to go to the bathroom, so I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, the dumb dog (who, by the way, is weirdly afraid of me) was standing next to my desk with his head all cocked with that sort of guilty “uhh, what’d I do?” dog face, and my croissant WAS GONE.

THE FUCKING DOG ATE MY CROISSANT.

I can’t even tell you how fucking pissed I am. Like, I can’t even work. I try to google something, and then I’m like, where’s my fucking croissant?!?! And now I’m hungry! And I can’t do anything about it! Because the dumb dog ate my croissant!

So really, the question here is, why the hell is there a dog in the office? Yeah, I don’t know, but I tell you, we are SO not friends right now. I think he knows it, too, he’s totally avoiding me.

Man. I could really go for a spinach feta croissant right now. And I can’t even go buy a new one because I spent all my money on the first one. Well, you know what dog? I hope you enjoyed it. Because you are hella never getting my croissants AGAIN.

So assuming the default day is five stars, I lose one for the Masshole, and one for the croissant, things should theoretically only go up from here, unless my horoscope star calculus is off. Remains to be seen.

By golly I’m just so darn thankful…

Well, here I am, disappearing again for days and days and days at a time. My apologies.

For some reading in the meantime, I’ve recently had posts up on The Only Democracy? and Mondoweiss, so knock yourself out.

For more mundane but less controversial musings on life in general…my third Thanksgiving away from home has just passed, and was remarkably easier and less depressing than the last two. Last year I somehow ended up alone, which was just lame, and the first year was in Jordan, and as the first just rather miserable overall. But this year we got our nice group of Americans and Israelis and Palestinians and Canadians together, and cooked a big ol’ meal, and ate and drank and photographed until we were about ready to pop. It’s funny to observe after all these years what really makes a holiday a holiday. You think it’s about food, or the specific location or tradition or group of people. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it really is about people; about people you love, family or otherwise, and being comforted by the knowledge that even if the situation isn’t ideal or we have misgivings or the mashed potatoes didn’t come out quite right, there’s really nowhere else we’d rather be right then. This is OUR Thanksgiving and WE made and Goddammit, we’re going to enjoy it. We managed to pull together a roast chicken, stuffing, wine, challah, sweet potatoes, and apple crisp. And hey, if that ain’t Thanksgiving, I don’t know what is.

But it is also lamely tempting to think about it in Thanksgiving-y terms. I was very thankful that I have a mother who cooks, so I knew how to make a roast chicken in a pinch. And I am very thankful for having friends who coerce me into cooking, even when I think I don’t want to. And I am thankful for having people to share food with, because roasting and eating a chicken yourself is pathetic. I am thankful, depressing as it is, to know I am able to survive the holiday season so far away from home; it’s indicative of growth and flexibility and, in a way, buoyancy. It’s hard, for sure, but when you have people to share it with it’s like a whole new thing, a new tradition, a reminder that life is full of possibilities and it’s a wonderful thing to not know what’s coming. Next year will be bittersweet, knowing it’ll be yet another different Thanksgiving experience. Probably not the crazy adventure of trying to make an American Thanksgiving in the Middle East, but (after looking at family photos from this year’s Thanksgiving that I missed) even family changes over time, no matter how static you wish it would stay.

I mean, I’m going back to cousins who are a foot taller and a year older and new babies I’ve never met…will some of these kids even know my name? I’ve missed three years of family events. As grateful as I am for what I’ve been able to do in these past few years, the holiday season really throws the sacrifices I’ve made into sharp relief. No regrets, to be sure. But the constant change and uncertainty is more often terrifying than not. But every year is new, and every year is different, and there’s nothing like making Thanksgiving half a world a way to remind you of how amazing this is.

Blogging from…

…an online gaming center in Nafplio, Peloponnese, Greece.

Brief updates: getting-out-of-Israel security was unnecessarily long and complicated. I didn’t realize it mattered what shul I went to when I was leaving the country. But we manage, miraculously, somehow, to leave, get on the plane half asleep (6 am flights are not so fun), land in Athens, metro, get lost on the way to our hostel, find it, and pass out for five hours. Initial wanderings around Athens led to tourist traps and steep, crooked, narrow hillside stairways and road, simultaneously quaint and graffitied pastel homes, old Greek men cooking dinner in their windows, and views of the city from above and the Acropolis from below.

At the top of the mountain, bought a “cigarette” and had it rolled for 4 euro…and bad Greek weed is still better than Israeli weed. Thanks to Adonis and Stefanos and the top of the hill in the Plaka, Athens. Post-joint, mountainside restaurant for dinner with a kilo of homemade red wine, garlic bread, salad, and some fried zucchini balls…did I mention the homemade red wine? So far a trend in this country, and not one I am upset about in any way.

Next day: decide to tour some of the “old shit” in Athens because, well, that’s what there is to do there. Acropolis workers on strike (I love this, Hillary is none too thrilled), meander downhill to avoid payment of “seeing old shit” fees. Watercolors and street music leads to the seedy part and, eventually, furniture artisans and old 45s for sale. French press, spanakopita, and a loaf of bread from the bakery. Metro and bus, forgot to pay but avoided the 60x charge for riding without a validated ticket (karma!). Bus to Nafplio via one-hour traffic jam, Corinth, beautiful mountains and farm-filled valleys. A minor miracle this bus could make these sharp turns on these narrow roads.

Again, get lost finding the hotel/pension/guesthouse. But after several probably very expensive phone calls with the owners, we find our way through the old city down tiny side alley to our charming hillside guesthouse. Vassilly is the house mother, an excited hostess eager to give us anything we need in our snug room (but it has a bathroom!)…all for the low low price of 40 euro/night.

Some more wandering, “small fish” for dinner which I did not realize until my plate appeared that this meant, literally, a plate full of fried small fish – think minnows. Despite my initial shock I thoroughly enjoyed pulling them apart with my fingers to pull out the spines, and it satisfied my cravings for seafood in this picturesque, if touristy, port town.

Search for dessert led to dark chocolate-chili sorbet at the best (no lie) gelato place I have ever been to, according to the guidebook best in Greece. Sat on the pier and dipped my toes in the sea and missed Portland.

This morning: French press, greek yogurt (Fage is actually Greek), tomato, bread, on the landing outside with sounds of a lazy morning on the Mediterranean. Wandered up and down, along old battlements at the top of the hill on the peninsula. Churches, alleys, balconies, flowers, sunshine and breeze. A lunch of Greek salad and lamb in the pot, topped off with a boat ride to a castle on an island, a second round of gelato (dark chocolate sorbet for me), an espresso, and an afternoon flash flood thunderstorm.

Feta, check. Fish, check. Olive oil, check. Lamb, check. What else do I need from Greece?

Little things

In a major feat of accomplishment I managed to actually find and buy cheddar cheese from the cheese counter at the friendly neighborhood Russian supermarket. I didn’t realize how much I missed cheddar cheese until I ate some. Granted, it’s no Cabot or Tillamook, but it’ll do in a pinch. Unfortunately, I did put it in my eggs this morning, which made me very very homesick (although mostly for Carver’s – fave breakfast/brunch in CO). But as silly as it is, I am very excited to now have it in my fridge and to know where I can get more. It is the staple portion of my diet that was missing until now. So thank god that’s been rectified.

It also made me realize how much I miss Triscuits and grilled cheese. In fact, I decided the first meal I want when I get home is grilled cheese (sorry Dad – maybe I’ll make sure I get home for lunchtime instead of dinner).

Couchsurfing

I have now officially joined the social networking generation with my new couch-surfing membership. In my limited couchsurfing experience, it is a peculiarly intense way to meet and bond with strangers. But amazing. I joined with the intent to find other climbers, with the secondary goal of making new friends and global acquaintances. Despite these modest purposes, I found in my inbox yesterday morning a request for my couch. Me?! Humble surfing virgin, already with appeals from road-weary travelers?

I delayed responding all day, hesitant to interrupt my weekend of drudgery and self-indulgence-through-Mad-Men, but eventually my sense of mitzvah sunk in and I called her. Of course she could stay.

A young German woman from Hamburg arrived outside my house this morning. She landed in Israel on Monday, and has spent this week walking the coastline and sleeping on the beach.

She joined us when we brunched in the early afternoon – French toast with the leftover raisin challah I made for the holiday with banana compote as a topping, a huge bowl of fruit salad, vegetable salad, falafels with tahini for dipping, and mimosas. It was heaven. It was also, I think, somewhat of an awakening for her. She’s met Israelis of all political ilk in her sandy travels. But here we were, crazy Americans, with an eager and willing audience. She drank it all in, all sides and all points of view, all of our hurt and confusion and outrage. All of our hopes for the future and our cynicism right along with it. She told me afterwards how much fun she had, how she appreciated listening to us, how it’s been so interesting to hear so many sides of this issue – and how in the end, everyone is just trying to live the best life they can.

She is also the first German I’ve ever talked to about the Holocaust. Actually, I think she’s the first German I’ve ever really met. In any case, she talked in a sort of frustrated way about the phenomenon of German guilt. Certainly there is cause to be guilty on some level. But she also acknowledged that people, especially of the older generation, need to move on. Not forget, but just move on. It is no longer a political reality. She also described the social phenomenon that occurred immediately afterwards, when all Germans immediately decided they weren’t racist and buried all those ideas deep inside. But they were, she said. And they still are (after all, everyone’s a little bit racist). German culture is so sensitive to racism now, though, that even talking about the possibility of its existence is taboo.

In a way that is incomparable to any evils visited by the US on anyone, for her the idea of the Holocaust is completely incomprehensible. When she visited a concentration camp, she broke down. She couldn’t process it. How can you? It’s a huge and horrible truth, how can you even begin to imagine it was your people, your country that perpetrated it? That it was done in your language? On your behalf, in your name?

On my behalf, in my name?