The old Red Fez (1940-’80) was never actually Turkish, but it evoked the period before World War I when Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine were part of the Ottoman Empire, and immigrants from the Middle East were admitted to the United States as " Turks. " It was an inexpensive, gently ethnic room that went from being a family restaurant to a second-date restaurant to sort of an after-work beer spot for Boston teachers and such. The food was more noted for being cheap than being good, as the ethnic customers moved over to Nadia’s Eastern Star and the Cedars when the Arab-American enclave began to break up, relocating to West Roxbury and the southwestern suburbs. Thus it is entirely reasonable to revive the Red Fez as a South End watering hole. The new Fez has rather better food, casting a wider net around the Mediterranean, with flashier drinks (for which the original was never licensed), a credible wine list, and a promising weekend brunch.
The revivalists have also made a much larger, airier, and nicer dining space, without sacrificing the flavor of nostalgia. It’s possible that Arab-Americans from, say, Detroit may find some of the Red Fez imagery offensive, but Boston relatives will explain that this was the public face of the neighborhood for previous generations. There are a few kinks, but this is a very good and useful restaurant.
The breadbasket is the first sign of seriousness. In addition to the classic wedges of pita, there are baby pitas, and something else: on one visit, a rich, focaccia-like loaf topped with sesame seeds and thyme; on another, a salty, addictive, corrugated sort of demi-flatbread. Any of the breads can be dipped in olive oil with sesame seeds floating on top.
Appetizers are very much the focus, with 18 " mezze " (think tapas) and another dozen " specialty mezze " and salads. Of the former, our old friend the baba ghanoosh ($4) is very, very good — creamy eggplant purée with subtle hints of smoke and garlic. The hummus ($4) is lemony and fresh-tasting. Cucumber laban ($4) is a minty yogurt-cum-salad. The three falafel patties ($4) are soft, a little greasy, and full of hot pepper, although decorated prettily with a bit of sesame tahini and a stripe of sumac, an acidic red powder.
My favorite appetizer is the grilled-shrimp chermoula ($12), truly excellent grilled shrimp out of the shell, with a bit of the grill and some mild Moroccan spice in every bite. This is a big-restaurant appetizer, with a slice of toast and a nice salad of baby spinach leaves dressed with a lemon-peppery yogurt dressing. The Syrian salad ($8) is a nice combination of Greek salad, roasted peppers, and assorted olives, but on both of my visits it lacked the promised mint.
Among the entrées, the kefta skewers ($15) are impressive footballs of lamb and beef, with a nice flavor of onion and herbs. Harissa-marinated chicken breast with almonds and apricot chutney ($16) isn’t traditional anything, but it’s a nice spin on barbecued chicken: boned breast broiled in hot-spicy harissa, topped with some sliced almonds, and, for even more flavor, a sweet but complementary chutney of white raisins and apricots. I don’t think the old Fez would have served such hard-baked rice, although it wouldn’t have flavored it with chopped chives, either. The rice is better on the grilled salmon with fresh crabmeat and shaved fennel, although our crabmeat was not the freshest, and our fennel was somewhat wilted. The novelty here was that the waiter asked us how we liked the salmon cooked. It came " cooked through " as we ordered it, and probably could be made rare at the center or well-done if you asked. These gradations make as much difference with salmon as with steak, yet this is the first restaurant where I can remember being asked how I wanted my salmon cooked, and it was excellent once the toppings were dismissed.
The new Red Fez has a substantial worldwide wine list; the old Fez had gotten a beer-and-wine license a few years before the end. In addition, it serves mixed drinks, such as the banadura ($8), a bloody Mary with Moroccan spices (mostly cumin) and a peppery vodka. There is also Almaza pilsner ($5), likely the first beer ever imported from Lebanon to the US. Almaza has a slight malty sweetness that rather suits Middle Eastern food. Coffee ($1.75) is good, the decaf bearable. Turkish coffee ($3) is quite good (and you can tell fortunes in the grounds).
The pick of the desserts might be the berry martini ($7), because the lemon mousse at the bottom of the martini glass and the vanilla cream on top set off the strawberries and blueberries (and some melon cubes) so nicely. I also liked the espresso-rum cake ($6), and a special — a cranberry-hazelnut torte ($7) that was sort of Maghrebian, Parisian, and Bostonian all at once. But with Turkish coffee, you must have the Lebanese cookie plate ($6), if only for the pair of round ma’mul flavored with nuts and rosewater. The longer, somewhat stodgy date-and-fig ma’mul and the rolled baklava weren’t my favorites, but it all goes down nicely with Turkish coffee.
My other visit was for a Saturday brunch, and I concluded that some of the brunch menu really ought to be added to the dinner menu. In particular, the Red Fez platter ($12) — a combination of baba ghanoosh, hummus, cucumber laban, and a spicy version of muhammara ($7 on the dinner menu), the Armenian paste of nuts, pomegranate juice, and red peppers. The lunch side is represented by sandwiches that could be reworked as dinner appetizers or entrées. One of roasted eggplant on a round roll ($9) was especially good, as was another of Tunisian-style lamb sausage ($10) with goat cheese and roasted red peppers, and both a sandwich and an omelet ($12) made of smoked portabella mushroom. Brunch dishes also featured excellent grilled asparagus ($4 on the dinner menu) and fabulous home fries that really must be fit onto the dinner menu somewhere.
Service was quite good during the quiet Saturday brunch, but it was hard to catch a waiter’s eye in the big room on a quiet weekday evening. The background tape is jazz, which was welcome at brunch but less so at dinner. Despite the bare brick walls, smooth floors, and large room, the new Fez is not a loud place, possibly even less loud than the old Fez. The décor is minimal and not very impressive by the standards of Tangierino, Argana, Oleana, and ZaZu. But they aren’t in the South End, don’t have a large parking lot in the South End, and aren’t capacious in the South End. An earlier generation of Middle Eastern restaurants in Greater Boston were inexpensive and fun. The new generation (and the Red Fez is in that pack, if not in the lead) are much, much more than that.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com