Fez is the nearly two-year-old brainchild of chef Niels Nielsen, whose Albany tie-in is a stint he served as chef at New World Bistro Bar when it opened. But he’s also been in the Saugerties-area kitchens of the Bears and Miss Lucy’s Kitchen, and also partnered in running a couple of his own.
“My first restaurant jobs were when I was living in Los Angeles,” he says. “I worked front of house, managing a place, and I was getting tired of that. The place closed for renovations, and when it reopened, the chef—who had a drug problem—was not to be found. So the owner asked me if I could cook while they looked for someone. I ended up running that kitchen.”
After he moved to Saugerties, the commute to the Albany restaurant was proving to be too much, so when he learned of an available space in his own town, he jumped at it, handling the design and renovations himself.
“I looked around Saugerties to see what restaurants were doing, and it was all turning into market menus, with local this and local that,” he says. “And I thought that was getting kind of clichéd. I wanted to do something the opposite of what everyone else was doing. I was very influenced by a book called The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson, which took a fresh look at the flavors of Africa. I settled on Moroccan, which has so many influences, and Mediterranean, which gives me room to play.”
Fez shares Partition Street with a number of other restaurants, but stands out not only in its culinary uniqueness but also its intimacy: It has seven tables and a few seats at the big wooden bar. When we visited, on a recent Saturday, the tables were filled. But the menu looked great. “You can sit at the bar,” the hostess suggested. “Or we can just go someplace else,” whispered my wife, fearful lest I should give voice to my antipathy at being relegated to what seems like second-class seating.
“And miss the best food in town?” cried the hostess. That did it. We settled in.
And never once felt shortchanged. We had the bonus of brief chats with Elisa, as she and another server worked the room.
At the heart of the entrée list are tagines, a Moroccan dish named for the two-part clay pot in which it’s cooked and presented—although Elisa explained that the restaurant right now lacks enough of them for the latter. Susan’s tagine of chicken ($16) arrived on a fairly standard restaurant plate, but the meat bore the complicated flavors of vegetable-rich braising, set off with olives and lemons and served over saffron-scented rice.
You can ease into the cuisine with a mezze appetizer ($8), the contents of which change daily. The night of our visit it comprised rice-stuffed grape leaves, chorizo, pâté, sheep’s-milk cheese and a briouat, the last-named also available as an appetizer unto itself. It’s a pastry roll stuffed with something savory or sweet; Nielsen wraps a filling of seasoned ground lamb in phyllo and serves a pair of them with sweet tomato jam.
Other apps include chick pea flour-dusted calamari ($7), phyllo purses of crabmeat and goat cheese ($8), falafel ($6) and hummus and pita ($5). We also sampled the grilled grape leaves ($6), presented with a harmonious filling of eggplant and cheese, and a special-of-the-night starter of Lebanese-seasoned chicken wings ($8) with a spicy tahini dipping sauce and a robust side of pickled green beans.
Grilled vegetables are offered as a salad ($10), an array of squash, croutons, tomatoes and more on a bed of romaine with—this is almost the best part—a tahini vinaigrette.
The warm loaf of discus-shaped bread (khobz) that hits your table includes sides of olives and tzatziki, and is a useful accompaniment to dishes with sauce content.
Several varieties of kabob are offered, made with vegetables, chicken or harissa-spiced merguez sausage ($11) or steak, shrimp, seafood kefta or lamb kefta ($12). A veggie sampler ($14) sports a kabob, falafel, grilled grape leaf, hummus, baba ganoush and more, or you can head right for the Mediterranean with a preparation of penne with broccoli rabe, roasted tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ($16).
And there’s steak and chicken. A NY strip is $19, a pistachio-crusted chicken breast over angel hair is $18.
At Elisa’s recommendation, I ordered the zarzuela ($19), a Spanish term for a variety show that applies to a musical genre as well as this traditional seafood stew. Nielsen prepares it with a bounty of clams and mussels and calamari, with fat shrimp lurking below and a skewer of seafood kefta. Potatoes and escarole complete the dish, which sits in a red pepper broth that may require another round of khobz.
We watched as surrounding tables emptied and refilled, and heard the warm-up of the jazz band at the adjacent coffee shop. “There’s a nice vibe here when it’s busy,” Nielsen later said. “As the weather gets warmer we’re starting to shrug off the slow winter.” He’s opening for Saturday and Sunday brunch this weekend with more original creations on tap. “I make my own merguez, a sausage traditionally made with lamb, but I use chicken in the same flavor profile. That becomes a hash for brunch. I make a harissa hollandaise, which is a signature item, and pancakes and individual frittatas. And there’s a vegetable tagine served over polenta with poached eggs.”
We finished with a dessert mezze of brown-butter shortbread, Moroccan-spiced coffee ice cream, rosemary-almond brittle, tart cherry gelées and almond-stuffed dates ($8) and a cup of spiced Moroccan coffee ($3.50) to fuel the ride home.
Fusion has become a tiresome word in the restaurant world, giving license to cuisine created, it seems, solely as a show-off device. But Nielsen’s fusion of Moroccan and Mediterranean has historical logic behind it. It’s unique, it works, and he does it very well.
Fez, 71 Partition St., Saugerties, 845-247-7198, fez-mediteroccan.com. Serving dinner 5-9 Wed-Thu, 5-10 Fri-Sat, brunch 11-3 Sat-Sun. Cash only.
Entrée price range: $11 (kabobs) to $19 (Spanish fish stew)