I had been a bit worried about Fatima. The A in her name had been missing off the marquee for quite some time. Or was it the E in “Chez?” Can’t recall now. But no doubt about it, there was a letter gone and when you are positioned as Chez Fatima is now positioned, on the busy intersection of Promenade du Portage and rue Laval, these omissions tend to jump out.
Not that the letter off would have stopped me from heading in. I have long enjoyed both the food and the mood at Fatima’s. The only thing stopping me from heading in were the crowds. By the time I got clever and made a reservation rather than just showing up, the sign was in complete working order again, and I didn’t have to mention it at all.
It was a profoundly disappointing meal at another Moroccan restaurant in Hull that left me unsatisfied and still longing, so I dropped in for lunch one day. Besides, I hadn’t returned to Chez Fatima since she had picked up her many tagines and moved a few doors east. My overdue return began at Fatima’s weekday lunch buffet. You can fill up well and for little – and many do. But I wanted pastilla, and that required a dinner reservation.
“Fatima’s Salad” is what we began with, while we waited for the pastilla to bake. It is a well-mounded plate of whatever chef/owner Fatima Semlali has on hand. What Fatima had on hand were all the various vegetable salads from the salad bar, plus some hummus, tabbouleh, olives and oranges.
The salads from the salad bar, while hardly exotic, are all solidly tasty and, with the exception of a soggy potato salad, well prepared. The handmade, house-baked bread is fragrant of anise, sports a lovely chewy crust and would give Art-is-in a run for its money.
Then the pastilla. It’s a wacky thing, really – a sugar-cinnamon- dusted phyllo pastry package of chicken (traditionally, squab), a bit like eating a sweetish chicken pot pie or a savoury almond croissant.
But it’s a celebration dish in North Africa – a cuisine that enjoys a unique relationship with things sweet – and when done well, is a knockout.
Fatima’s version is that, mostly because the sweet and savoury are well-balanced in a plump package of wafer-thin layers of browned pastry, all crisp and crumbling. The pulled meat inside is moist, the almonds crushed into a paste, the onions caramelized, the seasoning bang-on and the cinnamon-sugar dusting restrained. I’ve had versions where the latter was so thickly laid on and the filling so meagre, the thing was only edible once I’d turned it on its side and burped the sugar dusting off.
Chef Fatima escapes the kitchen and delivers the pastilla herself.
With some ceremony she divides it into triangles and plops it on our plates, reserving the biggest wedge for the 17 year old. (“I have boys. They are always hungry…”)
She’s back again when mains are delivered, to lift the lids off our tagines tableside. A tagine is a terracotta cooking pot with a conical lid. It allows baking in or on top of the stove over low heat for a long time, locking in moisture and blending flavours. Fatima’s tagines (also the name given to the stew within the pot) are greater than the sum of their parts: Lamb shank, cooked down with preserved lemons, apples, green olives and aromatic vegetables; or chicken with prunes, almonds, figs and cilantro; or basa fish, perfectly moist, in a charmoula sauce. Couscous topped with steamed vegetables comes on the side. Also a success is a skewer of grilled lamb (tender) and chicken (moist) with peppers and onion, a mound of greens and tomato, and with a few assertive sausages on a side pile of rice.
Before apple cake and mint tea, there was an interval. The music fired up and out oozed the belly dancer. Her name is Christine and I remember her long, apricot hair and the mesmerizing way she moved and shook from four years ago – my last Fatima meal. She will share the floor and her jangly hip scarf with anyone inspired to join in.
She was the reason, I suspect, my oldest son declared Moroccan his favourite cuisine walking out Fatima’s door in 2007. Son No. 3 would agree. We left Chez Fatima feeling pretty light on our feet.