In addition to its obvious attributes – delicious food, a handsome look and superior service – there’s the nostalgic component of the Fairouz story that makes me a bit dewy eyed. Fairouz is a month-old restaurant with a deep past — and based on early visits, I trust will have a long future.
I first wrote about Fairouz for enRoute Magazine in 1990. The restaurant was then on Elgin Street. My next review of it, for the Citizen, was in 1993, shortly after it moved to the Somerset Village strip in which you find it now.
In its day, Fairouz was one of a very few ‘ethnic’ restaurants that operated comfortably within the stiff fine-dining conventions that once defined the gastronomy of our capital region. Rigidly formal, elegantly appointed, kinda romantic, its kitchen maintained the high standards that, for more than fifteen years, made it Ottawa’s go-to for fine Lebanese food and gracious service.
Fairouz left Somerset in 2005. For an eye-blink, it became Fairouz Chalet on Bank Street south, then quietly vanished. Now, a decade later, it’s back, re-invented and re-invigorated, in the same solid brick house it operated in for most of its life. One of its owners – Ottawa doctor Hussain Rahal – is a member of the family that ran and worked the original Fairouz, which adds an element to the romance of its reincarnation.
There’s little of the Lebanese restaurant of Rahal’s youth in the look of Fairouz 2016. The brick frame is the same, but the rooms have been opened up. Light streams from the front windows to the back spaces, where you find the bar and kitchen, visible through a large peaking window. Turquoise is the accent colour in an otherwise crisp palate of white, grey and gold, and it brings a jewelled softness to the space. Carved black screens and antique chandeliers deliver a Moorish feel.
Chef Walid El-Tawel helms the kitchen. You may remember El-Tawel from his years at E18hteen on York Street before he was wooed to Toronto restaurant projects.
He’s returned to Ottawa, sensible fellow that he is, to open Fairouz, 2.0, offering food he describes as “a modern journey through the Middle East.” Dishes require some explaining, and the servers (“let me take you through the menu”) are up to the task. They are a capable, kind crew, well versed on the menu, and led with distinction by maitre d’/sommelier Adam Weiss.
The pleasures start early with a well made cocktail (something lightly pink, bubbly and deliciously unsweet with a peppery finish called Summer Damask) and the house pita. The bread arrives because we ordered a round of dips, and you should do likewise. The best among the trio on offer is the muhammara, reddened with roasted peppers, nubbly with walnuts and juicy with pomegranate seeds. The bread itself arrives puffed up like plumped pillows, warm and chewy, crusted with cumin seed. It ferries the exceptionally good dips to mouth with alarming ease. Fill up on these at your peril.
No ‘modern’ menu can be free of the words Grazing and Sharing, and so it is here. After you’ve had your way with the dips, head for the Turkish style ‘spoon salad’ that features the raw summery flavours of gazpacho, the brightness of pomelo and pomegranate, the heat from Aleppo pepper, the tang of sumac and the precision knife skills of someone who knows a brunoise cut.
There are really delicious falafel here, beautifully spiced and perfectly crunchy, featuring silky braised lamb, bathed in a minted tahini sauce and served with disks of peppery radish. A puck of lamb tartare has good looks and harissa gutsiness in equal measure, served with bulgur crackers.
Continuing with the raw and the luscious, tuna comes rubbed with the Middle Eastern spice mix baharat, sweetened with scarlet dobs of hibiscus gelée, and topped prettily with edible petals and the elements of a refined bread salad. The one dish from the starter section that didn’t thrill was a wedge of grilled halloumi – stunningly pretty on the plate, but the cheese was uncomfortably dry.
But let me tell you about the chicken. I can’t remember the last time I raved about a chicken dish, of all things, but this one is spectacular – crispy and juicy and shot through with dark, forceful flavours, served with a wide ribbon of date ‘leather’ and a pickled eggplant relish. Also delicious is the lamb loin lively with the North African spicy herb sauce chermoula and with a side of cauliflower shredded to imitate couscous. These are ‘sharing’ dishes you will prefer to keep to yourself.
You will want rice with these dishes and you’ll have two choices there – the sweeter, fruitier jawaher and the more brooding mujadara with lentils and threads of caramelized onion, among other treats.
End with the grown up chocolate cake (with bulgur flour and orange blossom water) served with pistachio ice cream and candied nuts, and the sweetened cheese rolls called halwat il jben.
Fairouz delivers flavours we don’t often encounter in this city. It takes culinary risks that pay off. Service is gracious and the food is deeply pleasurable. Well done.