We dropped in at Fez, occupying the former site of Hamdi restaurant in Portland, on a Friday night. Instead of strictly Moroccan cuisine, as the name suggests, we found Mediterranean food with a northern African emphasis, including Somali fare.

It was warm, so the door was open to the sidewalk. A small heap of building debris sat out front. One of the garish walls inside was half-painted. A minor renovation was in progress.

For water service, bottles of Dasani came from the cooler. We settled into the no-frills atmosphere, primed for a culinary adventure.

Zaalouk, a garlicky eggplant appetizer served with deep-fried pita points, was a fabulous spread ($5.95).

The falafel appetizer, fritters of mashed chickpeas and herbs served with tahini over iceberg lettuce (although the menu says mixed greens), was nicely crusted, delicious and big enough for a main meal ($6.25). On our second try, diced tomatoes were included with this dish.

Hearty chunks of tender lamb and potatoes make up the tagine, which has so much meat it seems a bargain at $12.95, despite its lack of other vegetables, which are customary. We took half home and made a soup of it the next day.

A second visit, this time at lunch, yielded lamb that was inedibly tough. It hadn’t had enough time to stew, and shouldn’t have been served.

Hilib Ari, a slowed-cooked, on-bone goat meat dish, was earthy and tender ($10.95).

Tilapia filets swam in a sunny sauce of saffron and spices ($9.95), but the dish was pedestrian. Chicken Sukhar, a Somali dish, was a tasty entree of boneless chicken cubes served in a spicy, tomato-ey sauce ($10.95). Garlic, onion and salt are amply used in all.

Huge platters of rice, common in Somalia, accompanied these entrees. The grains were speckled with saffron and turmeric. Missing entirely from the menu was couscous, practically the national dish of Morocco.

The menu seemed more of a guideline than a set-in-stone list, something that surprised the owner when I asked him about the variations on a theme that come out of the kitchen, like the chicken kabob ($11.95). The meat arrived on top of rice instead of inside the advertised pita bread.

The Mediterranean salad was merely iceberg, beets and tomatoes topped with a buttermilk dressing, but it was billed to include roasted red and green peppers, cucumbers and a vinaigrette ($7.25; $5.99 with a meal).

We got four tall tumblers to hold our BYO wine. A friend headed to the street to buy a corkscrew when we learned the restaurant was without.

No coffee, tea, beverages or desserts were listed on the menu, nor were they offered. A sweetened mint tea is another standard Moroccan offering, so it was a surprise to see it absent.

One must sway with these breezes to appreciate the restaurant’s substantial portions of decent food with interesting, not too fiery spices.

Our cheerful and eager-to-please host, Moroccan native Abraham Lembarra (who owns, cooks and serves along with his quieter business partner, Hinda Hassan from Somalia), bent our ear about his culinary school background and experience at high-end establishments in Florida. Yet 10 weeks after Fez opened in midsummer, our experience at the restaurant was disorganized and idiosyncratic.

Our bill came with three items omitted — this can’t be good for profits — and the folder contained the completed credit slip from another diner.

It is this lack of focus that spurred me to return for another meal.

At that midweek lunch, we were the sole customers, and Hassan worked the whole place.

We were warmly greeted and attended, yet two items we requested, a repeat of the salad and a cup of tea — after we asked if one was available — were not delivered. Communication could have been an issue. (On our first visit, a Friday night, the place filled up with neighbors and food lovers out to try this new addition to the ethnic eateries in Maine. The two partners raced to keep up.)

For the most part, on both occasions, we ate pretty well. While the restaurant has quirks (including no restroom both times we visited, but on the second try we were told that it was almost done), you get a lot of homestyle ethnic food for not much money.

To support the immigrant community, Portlanders ought to want this eatery to make a good go of it. The delicious eggplant and falafel appetizers alone are a draw. And Fez is one of the few, if any, restaurants in town serving halal meat.

But perhaps the owners need to pause and catch a breath so that the restaurant doesn’t lurch haphazardly as it moves forward.

Portlanders will forgive much for good food, even an atmosphere that leaves much to be desired.

But a few items are essential, which is why we donated our corkscrew when we departed and stopped elsewhere to “freshen up.”

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer.


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