The word "exotic" is what comes to mind to describe the dining experience at Imperial Fez in Atlanta's South Buckhead neighborhood, from the moment you hand your key over to the valet attendant and enter the world of North African flavors until the end of your meal.
Throughout the short corridor leading to the hostess stand, robust reds and other jewel-tone colors dazzle your eyes while luscious aromas waft from the kitchen. The next thing you know, spices from a land far away soothe your mind and melt away the stress of the day as you're ushered to your seat — either up high on a bench or down low in a chair.
From here, the meal begins with the ceremonial washing of the hands. At your table, a tass is brought over. It's a hand-washing set consisting of what looks like a silver-covered urn or tea pot with an accompanying bowl. The host places the bowl on the table and proceeds to pour water over the hands of honored guests, who no longer have to leave the table for hand-washing, in preparation of the Moroccan tradition of eating with one's fingers. Forks are also provided upon request.
At Imperial Fez, the "happy drink" is called The Marrakech. It’s a fruity beverage of multiple spirits and juices that will undoubtedly leave you feeling just that — happy. While it's nice, the Royal Chambord Sangria kicks it up a few notches to surreal. The richness of the Chambord and the added flavor of a cinnamon stick make this unlike any traditional sangria you're likely to find, especially here in the States.
The meal beings with a savory Herrera Moroccan lentil soup of vegetables and lentils in a tomato-based broth that obviously gets its unctuousness from the lamb jus (and/or possibly beef).
Next comes a salad plate with a pile of sweet pickled carrots, a pile of savory red cabbage salad, a pile of humus, a type of tomato marmalade (with what seems like eggplant), and a pile of seasoned cucumbers in the center. Each is irresistible to the taste buds and bursting with flavors that go far beyond a tickle on the palate.
The courses above are included in the price of a meal, which also includes Moroccan bread and fekkas, which are somewhat similar to Italian biscotti.
Chef Rafih Benjelloun's roasted lamb shank entrée is baked with wild mushrooms, cumin, garlic, paprika, fresh cilantro, and other fresh herbs. As for the lamb, it begins to disassemble the moment it comes in contact with your fork or fingers. It is the epitome of North African flavors.
Chef Benjelloun's special beef ribs are a must try for beef rib lovers. Marinated with dried sweet chile, they put to shame all other beef ribs served in the city! Clearly having been slow-roasted for many hours in the same herb rich au jus, they're not just tender, but bursting with the rich flavor that comes from a marbled cut of beef.
Next was dish of tender chunks of chicken with raisin, couscous, and stewed apples. The couscous, garbanzo beans, root vegetables, and raisins makes for a combination far more savory than sweet, yet so dazzling to the palate.
For the finale, a concoction of rosewater and orange blossom is poured into the open palms of your hands to be rubbed together and inhaled, after which the guest is to make a wish. A sweetened hot tea is then poured to be enjoyed during fresh fruit and the chef's signature dessert of flaky pastry (similar to baklava) with fruit, Godiva chocolate, and powdered sugar.
Beyond the Meal
For your further enjoyment, there's the Fez hookah. The restaurant claims that when you smoke a hookah, you have time to think. Served in a variety of fruity flavors, the hookahs supposedly teach patience and tolerance and give one an appreciation for good company.
For anyone willing to go beyond the norm, an evening at Imperial Fez can be a full night of pleasure for the mind, the body, and the spirit. "I want them to walk away better than they came in," explains chef Benjelloun.