As you walk through the front door of this colourful, cluttered restaurant, you’re welcomed by jolly souk music, the scent of cinnamon and, if you’re lucky, by Fatima herself.
Though my first visit to Chez Fatima was Fatima-less. In fact, the first thing out of my server’s mouth was an apology. “Je suis desolÃ©â€¦” Fatima was on holiday, home to Morocco.
He seemed concerned we might walk out the door. Why we’d do that seemed to me mighty curious. We were hungry, the room smelled good, the patio doors were open, the breeze was gentle and there were North African wines on the list. We weren’t going anywhere. Besides, he was no slouch. And what was the big deal about Fatima anyway?
My second visit, two weeks later, we meet her. Within minutes his apology made sense. Fatima walks around the room like a mother hen, her apron stained with a hard day’s work, her long black hair tied up in a wonky scarf. She is warm, gracious and genuine. We relax under her ministrations – and under those of the bottle of Domaine du Sahari, vin rouge du Maroc she has left on the table. “Drink how much you like, I’ll charge you later.”
Moroccan olives arrive smeared in a pungent paste, along with a basket of bread – warm, chewy, anise-scented, and exceptionally good. It is the first good thing of many to come.
If you have yet to experience what happens when a lamb has lied down with a preserved lemon for a few hours, Fatima’s place is a tasty introduction. Or maybe try the harissa (Morocco’s national soup), the harira (Morocco’s fiery condiment) or the pastilla (a North African sugar-cinnamon-with-poultry delicacy).
The mix of flavours in Moroccan cuisine comes from a mish mash of many cultures over many centuries – Arabic, Berber, Saharan, Spanish, Turkish, Sephardic Jewish. Chez Fatima does a good job of presenting this rich cultural blend.
After olives, comes soup – harissa or lentil – and pasty treats like that festive pastilla. Prepared for one or for two, it unites shredded chicken with crushed almonds, fresh mint, and aromatic spices. Moistened with an egg custard, the concoction is wrapped in phyllo dough, baked brown, oozing butter, and served with a sprinkling of sugar- cinnamon. It is very sweet, and not to everyone’s taste (though it works on mine). Roasted, mashed eggplant mixed with parsley, tomato and chilies is an unsweet starter that might appeal to those not ready for the pastilla. Mussels in good condition hang out in a charmoula sauce – with onions, tomatoes, preserved lemon, coriander.
The main menu is split into the classics – tagines, couscous, grills. The vegetarian couscous teams vegetables and chickpeas; the fish tagine combines striped bass with more of that good charmoula sauce. The rich stew that unites a lamb shank with prunes, apples, dried figs, raisins, and roasted almonds is sweet and fragrant of cinnamon, ginger and orange. Coriander seed, green olives, mushrooms, squash and preserved lemon is the other – and wildly different – treatment of lamb. The brochette Royale brings lamb, chicken, kafta (meatballs), prawns and merguez sausage together on one long skewer, with a side dish of couscous topped with caramelized onion, zucchini, squash and potato.
Harissa, the fire-red condiment made from chili peppers, salt and a little oil, comes in a little dish alongside. Proceed with caution.
Briwate (phyllo pastry packed with sweet almond paste) and chabakia (honey-soaked sesame biscuits) arrive for dessert, along with fresh mint tea. Sugar is served on the side of the tea, which may not be authentic Moroccan-style, but we are grateful nonetheless.
On a Friday night at Fatima’s, our service is interrupted for twenty minutes by a stunningly beautiful belly dancer, snaking her way through an intoxicating routine.
As we leave Fatima’s place, my 19-year-old son tells me Moroccan might be his favourite cuisine.