The beige bulb of crackly pastry dough sprinkled with white powder could be hiding anything. You punch a fork into the flaky shell and a wisp of steam fills the air, which is already thick with incense and the blare of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" set to a Middle Eastern rhythm.
Inside the bastilla, a savory Moroccan pie, you'll find glistening shreds of duck confit, slivers of floral-scented Marcona almonds, and ribbons of sticky golden onions.
Get it at Fez on Española Way. The year-old, whitewashed 70-seater edged by plush black couches inside and plenty of tables on the outdoor thoroughfare opened last October. Faycal Bettioui, chef and owner, was nicknamed "Fez" while growing up in Casablanca. He remembers rolling pastries at the family bakery before undertaking a culinary apprenticeship.
He moved to Miami in 2001 and attended Florida International University before becoming chef de partie at the Delano Hotel's Blue Door in 2004, when the hotel was advised by French gastronomic icon Claude Troisgros. In 2007 he joined David Bouley's short-lived Evolution at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach as a junior sous-chef before it closed later that year.
Bettioui decided to start a place of his own to fill a gap in Miami's Mediterranean offerings. "There was lots of falafel, pita, but no classical Moroccan," he says. He was immediately attracted to Española Way's wide sidewalks, where eateries' lengthy meals and happy chatter reminded him of his native Morocco.
Though he acknowledges that women in thick makeup and tight miniskirts don't ply two-for-one drink specials on the streets of heavily Muslim Marrakesh, Bettioui aspires to re-create the flavors and aromas of his homeland. He imports Spanish saffron and Turkish dates and creates his own blend of ras el hanout, a North African kitchen sink of spices with more than two dozen components.
The mixture of cardamom, dried orange peel, ginger, cumin, paprika, coriander, and other spices is ubiquitous on the menu, and its fragrance wafts into the street. One dish in which it shows up is the eggplant dip baba ghanouj, a velvety blend of roasted aubergine, smoky after being charred, with lemon and the nutty sesame paste tahini.
More than a dozen moderately priced small plates dominate the menu. One is kibbeh nayeh, a raw beef tartare finely diced into pebble-size nubs and accented by aromatic parsley. Toasted pine nuts add a slight crunch and earthiness to round out the strongly flavored meat.
Try the grilled octopus, which is charred and then covered with shaved fennel ribbons. The greens are sautéed briefly enough to remain crunchy but long enough to begin transforming the raw anise flavor into something a bit sweeter that plays well against the barely salty tentacle. The slight licorice notes are enhanced by dots of a rich, mustard-yellow saffron aioli that delivers an earthy, fragrant punch.
Some dishes are less successful. Chickpea fries, which bear a vague similarity to the polenta fries at Michael Schwartz's Harry's Pizzeria and his onetime boss Myles Chefetz's Big Pink, were bone-dry. The only thing that saved the crisped slabs was a ramekin of creamy tzatziki that smacked of lemon. Unfortunately, it was gone long before the fries.
Cubes of sirloin in beef kebabs were underseasoned and cooked well beyond the requested medium-rare. Their savior was the dish of grilled Brussels sprouts smartly sprinkled with a sweet-salty combination of pomegranate seeds and briny capers.
The can't-miss dish here is the lamb tagine. A heavy shank is rubbed with garlic, cumin, and coriander, seared, and then roasted for three hours in a blend of pork, chicken, and beef stock. The resulting juices are strained, reduced, and simmered with sweet, sticky dried dates and apricots that release their sugar into the savory broth. It's not served with the traditional heap of couscous, but that's a fault you'll forget as you suck the bone marrow from its hold.
By the end of the meal, as your server pours an eye-opening mint tea from a small silver teapot into tall, ornately etched glasses, you might also forget you're sitting near one of Miami Beach's most notorious tourist traps. Small missteps leave room for improvement, but the prices are fair for South Beach, and the service is attentive.
Yes, there's now a reason to visit this oft-shunned promenade.
Baba ghanouj $6
Chickpea fries $6
Kibbeh nayeh $12
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Lamb tagine $25
Beef kebab $25