Location is everything, the old real estate aphorism dictates. Some restaurants succumb to bad-luck locales. The owners of the McDonald's at 3051 East Washington Ave. hate their location so much that they want to move a block west. They claim people can't see the golden arches until they've passed the last turn-in. But I've never seen that parking lot empty.
The same cannot be said of Faouzi's Restaurant, suffering silently on the frontage road at Seminole Highway and the West Beltline. This little Moroccan restaurant, which occupies the former Blarney Stone bar, is serving a mixture of traditional North African cuisine and more familiar American sandwich options to a small crowd. In fact, except for when my wife accompanied me, I was the only diner every time I went.
Faouzi's menu is small, but not at the expense of flavor and volume. Moroccan cuisine is something of a blind spot to the average American diner, but any lessons learned in Bogart films about the melting-pot aspect of Morocco are basically accurate. Italian, French, Spanish, Middle Eastern and African cultures come to bear on Moroccan kitchens.
Faouzi's is ready for the breeze-though lunch crowd with burgers, a steak wrap and even a prime rib sandwich. The fire-grilled Sicilian chicken sandwich is a terrific summer meal (and even a little Moroccan, topped with peppers, onions and a tomato sauce with plenty of zing). It's a bit too wet to survive takeout, but delicious even eaten with fork and knife. The accompanying fries are fine, if nothing special. The artichoke and feta sandwich is more of a salad between slices of bread, and a bit too salty.
The sauce sampler (poorly named as it is) offers a bounty of fresh, flavorful vegetables and grains. Hummus and a fluffy couscous fill their expected roles with aplomb, and guacamole occupies the middle ground. It's an oddball inclusion, to be sure, but the flavors are quite complementary. Don't argue authenticity; just grab a warm pita point and dig in.
But when the kitchen is given free rein to prepare more traditional Moroccan dishes, Faouzi's truly begins to shine.
Start your meal with a plate of Moroccan flatbread dipped into olive oil, black pepper and grated Parmesan. A steaming cup of fresh-made soup comes out next. On all my visits it's been a slight variation on the theme of harira, a tomato and lentil soup traditionally served to break the daily fast of Ramadan, currently ongoing on the Muslim calendar.
Tagine, a term that refers to both the cookware and the dishes that are cooked in it, is another good place to begin your consideration of a Moroccan menu. Kofta (beef meatballs) are available à la tagine, and the lamb tagine is well seasoned and full of generous pieces of lamb, tender vegetables and pungent olives. The saffron rice that accompanies the main courses is perfect for absorbing runaway jus.
A beef stew that trades olives for cilantro is hearty and served steaming hot. The potatoes are bright yellow from the turmeric and curry that go into many Moroccan dishes; they are as delicious as they are visually appealing. Chicken kebab, seasoned strongly with curry and cooked over an open flame, arrives with more pita points and yogurt sauce, though is maybe a little light on the chicken. That the soup comes with the kebab is a saving grace for the overall value.
The biggest success was the falafel. The fried rounds are served in pita bread with fresh vegetables and the aforementioned thin, carroty yogurt sauce. It far outpaces two recent falafel dishes I've sampled in Madison, at the Great Dane and Mediterranean Hookah Lounge. Faouzi's version is tremendous and, at $7, a bargain as well.
Faouzi's offers a refreshing mint tea, Moroccan coffee and a pistachio baklava that I found tasty but wanting for a little honey. More surprisingly, there's also free wireless Internet access. The service is gold-standard generous and warm, with impeccable timing. Despite the unlikely neighborhood, the clean, welcoming interior houses plenty of wonderful food and drink, Moroccan and otherwise.