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Giving thanks, Moroccan-style

A holiday visit to Imperial Fez

'Tis the season to cover your ears. Every year at this time I invite readers to join me in guerilla assaults on sound systems in restaurants that play Christmas music. Barring that, please send me reports of particularly obnoxious cases. I will publish them in this space so that members of my underground network can zap them for you.

How much do I dislike Christmas music?

I dislike it so much that I'd rather watch a belly dancer writhe about a dining room than listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing "Jingle Bells." And that's my way of telling you that I ate the inaugural meal of the Christmas season, Thanksgiving, at Imperial Fez (2285 Peachtree Road, 404-351-0870). This Moroccan restaurant, although a bit kitschy, is still one of the trippiest spots in town and Chef-owner Rafih Benjelloun absolutely prepares our city's best example of his native cuisine.

The dining room at Imperial Fez is all pillows and Moroccan carpets. Plan to sit on the floor and eat with your hands. The latter is the only thing I dislike about the experience. At least the Ethiopians use a piece of bread to pick up stewed foods and salads. Here, the server washes your hands at the table and gives you a white bath towel to drape over your left shoulder. Then she ominously instructs you to eat with your right hand. She offers no explanation of your fate if you use your left hand.

Imperial Fez has quite a following and the novelty makes the place popular with visitors to the city, so it can be very crowded. I have found over the years that the food's quality seems to depend on the crowd, so I suggest you go during the week, when you probably won't be sitting thigh-to-thigh on the floor with a stranger. Thanksgiving night, the restaurant's crowd was quite sparse and the food was very good.

We ordered from a special Thanksgiving menu which only differed from the regular menu in being cheaper and offering turkey kumama, the best treatment of the Pilgrims' favorite bird I've had in a long time. It included big chunks of moist turkey in a stew seasoned with honey and almonds, with a lot of onions. Moroccan food really is among the most sensuous on the planet with its heavy use of sweet, even floral spices, contrasted with pungent and fruity flavors. Maybe the single most impressive dish I've ever had was a tagine of pounded rose petals I ate at Mansouria in Paris.

Wayne's entree, a red snapper tagine made with ginger-saffron sauce, exhibited the same complexity and solid cooking skills as my dish. Our meal also included the classic b'stella — chicken in phyllo pastry heavily dusted with confectioner's sugar — and a plate of salads with starkly contrasting flavors. The low point of the meal was the dessert, ordinary ice cream turning to soup in a goblet. I always enjoy the sweet mint tea served at meal's end. The server pours it from a great height. I have no idea why.

Belly dancing is inevitable here. I've written many times that belly dancers and mimes just don't do it for me. Benjelloun, who radiates an almost spiritual cheerfulness, clearly loves the dancing. He introduced the lone dancer during our meal with great fanfare (after complaining momentarily about the effect of the dollar on his import business). Yeah, I know, it's a revered art form. And the dancer was beautiful and her hip swiveling and abdominal contractions were altogether elegant. But, I just don't get undulating around a room with a candle on your head. Like I said, though, it beats the hell out of "Adeste Fidelis."

Update in Grant Park

Wayne and I live not a mile from Agave (242 Boulevard, 404-588-0006) and we've watched this Southwestern restaurant double its dining space and grow into a huge hit over the last few years. The parking lot seems to be packed every night, so we don't even attempt to stop by for a quick neighborhood dinner any more. But we did last week.

The restaurant seems to be following the if-it-works-don't-break-it rule. That is to say the menu never seems to change. I'm ready for some new dishes. However, and someone probably feels this way about every dish on the menu, I would be real angry if they eliminated the New Mexico green chile stew. It's an appetizer but by far my favorite dish at the restaurant. It unclogs the sinuses with its sometimes ferocious heat but at the same time is pure comfort food with potatoes, corn and beef tips. The classic posole is nearly as good.

I frequently order the fried chicken breast, marinated in buttermilk and coated in a cayenne-poblano batter, but this trip I tried the pork tostadas. Made with cheddar cheese, they were pure Tex-Mex but tasty. Wayne's chicken enchiladas were also border-style but well made.

Of course, the bar here is famous for its tequila collection and has its own following. With winter finally here, the newer dining room's big fireplace is especially attractive.

Here and there

Ray Stanjevich has opened a franchise of Tijuana Flats Burrito Company at 1830 Scenic Highway in Snellville. The restaurant features 15 different hot sauces, the fieriest being "Endorphin Rush." I presume this does not refer to Rush Limbaugh and does not contain OxyContin. ...

Dale Terry writes to recommend the pancakes and omelets at Village Eatery in Decatur's Oakhurst section ... Mallory writes to ask where his friend can find "shit on a shingle," which he describes as a military breakfast dish of white saw mill gravy and chopped hamburger on toast. Ugh. When I was a kid we called creamed chipped beef on toast the same thing. Maybe your friend will have to re-enlist, Mallory ... Mallory also highly recommends Los Hermanos in Tucker and Pho Ho, on Buford Highway, where he likes the grilled pork and prawns on noodles. The soups, pho, are perfect for the cold weather.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.



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