Situated on a quiet corner in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, surrounded by sleepy tree-lined residential streets, Figs offers Moroccan staples slightly fixed to American tastes. Launched in 2001, Figs is a popular BYOB spot for the local upscale clientele. A few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Figs serves nicely as a midday break, or a post museum pit stop. When the weather is nice, outdoor seating at this cash-only, Casablacan eatery makes it an even more enticing option. Once inside, you’ll find a comfortable, yet carefully adorned 40-seat dining room, delivering moderately priced Moroccan inspired comfort food.
Stepping inside, from the corner entrance on 25th and Meredith Street, I immediately sense the coziness of the amber-hued room. It is a small space but the tables are not too close together. Less than half full when we arrive, the noise level is still moderately high, so I’d imagine it can be relatively boisterous when fully booked. A quick glance toward the back, into the open kitchen is met by a look and a gesture from the sous chef, who motions us toward the tables, indicating that we are free to choose our own. We select a table for two, nestled along one of the restaurant's two large glass windows facing the street.
We sit down and are immediately greeted by our waitress, dressed in traditional apparel, who carefully hands us each a menu. Noticing that we've brought a bottle of wine, she briskly leaves and returns with a wine key, as well as a pitcher of water to fill our glasses, which are never left less than half full. We are left to open and pour the wine ourselves and I am comforted by the fact that there is no corkage fee.
Taking my first sip of Cabernet Sauvignon, I look around the room and drink up the homey charm of the dimly lit space. I notice an old wood burning stove along the wall and a family, quietly enjoying dinner at a table close to the kitchen. More than just another guest, I feel like I’m dining in the proprietor’s own living room. Peering into the kitchen once again, I can see a rack of North African spices lining the wall.
Spices play a critical role in Moroccan cuisine. The most common of which include allspice, black pepper, ground cayenne, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, curry, cumin, ginger, lavender, saffron, turmeric and rosebuds. Spice mixes such as Ras el Hanout (a Moroccan spice blend that can contain as many as thirty spices), are also very important. Condiments include those such as Harissa, a hot sauce made with powdered chilies, garlic, olive oil and salt. Even from far away, I can smell these complex spice mixtures wafting from the kitchen, like a spiced perfume filling the room.
Hung on the walls are all manner of Moroccan art and artifacts; a multi-colored vase rises above our table from the window sill. A beautiful chandelier near the center of the room radiates an orange warmth throughout the space. There is something personal about the décor, as if outfitted with Executive Chef/Owner Mustapha Rouissiya's own belongings.
Chef Rouissiya, a Casablanca native, brings many years and a wide diversity of culinary experience to Figs. As a young boy, his initial training began at the side of his mother and grandmother, from whom he learned the essentials of Moroccan cooking. He built on his culinary foundation in France, before working as Executive Sous Chef at Boston's Legal Seafood. More locally, he helped launch Striped Bass as one of its sous chefs, partnered to launch Rococo and worked as the head chef at Twenty Manning. Wanting to focus on and share the unique flavors of his homeland, Chef Rouissiya opened Figs as a friendly and intimate neighborhood BYOB, which simmers in North African flavors.
As our waitress returns to take our order, she leaves us with complimentary bread and a small dish filled with a creamy carrot dip. The bread acts as a nice repository for the smooth garlicky dip.
Our appetizers arrive in tandem. First up are the Spinach, Pinenut and Feta Cheese Phillo Triangles, served with tzatziki. Clearly Greek inspired the pinenuts easily mellow out the saltiness of the feta and the slight bitterness of the spinach. A light and flakey phillo dough crust nearly seals the deal, offering an outer crunch to the gooiness of the filling but dipping a triangle in the cool, creamy, fresh and subtly sour tzatziki sauce is what really brings it all together.
Along with the phillo triangles, we have the Pepper Crusted Sea Scallops, served with a saffron leek sauce. The four scallops are poached in milk rather than pan-seared, leaving them with a nice translucent but slightly white hue. They are liberally crusted with fresh pepper, giving them a deep spicy flavor. The saffron leek sauce expertly combines the bitter and hay-like quality of saffron with the sweetness of the cooked, oniony leeks.
Next, our entrees arrive, demonstrating Figs’ duel personality, which caters evenly to both American and Moroccan palates. My companion has opted for the Sesame Crusted Salmon Filet, served with roasted mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus and a ginger plum sauce. The salmon is obviously cooked with great care and I love how the sesame seeds look on the filet, wedged within the sticky plum sauce. The sauce delivers a sweet, fruity contrast to the salmon’s flakey flesh. The salmon rests on a bed of roasted asparagus, the crunch of the spears counterbalancing the delicateness of the fish and the creamy, garlicky potatoes.
For my entrée, I’ve selected the Braised Lamb Shank Tagine, served with sundried cranberry couscous, and winter vegetables in an apple cider honey saffron broth. Having chosen a traditional Moroccan dish, the seductive aroma teases my appetite, even before the dish is placed on the table. A tagine is a slow cooked stew, found in the North African cuisines of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, quite similar to an Italian ossobuco. The expertly braised lamb shank is served bone-in, which barely stops the tender meat from sliding off onto the plate. Underneath, the cranberry infused couscous and honey tinged vegetables are a sweet – but not too sweet – contrast to the savory lamb. Combining a bit of lamb, couscous and hearty vegetables in each bite turns every forkful into a divine event.
Turning to the dessert menu, I figure I can’t leave the restaurant without trying a dish incorporating actual figs.
This provides me with just the excuse I need to indulge and I order the homemade fig ice cream. Using fresh and not dried figs imparts a subtle sweetness to the cold confection. Each spoonful of the lavender dessert delivers hints of peach, strawberry and lemon.
I finish the meal as any good Moroccan would, with the Moroccan Mint Tea. Served in the traditional style, the tea is poured by my waitress from a personal-sized teapot into a small glass from high above. The elevated pouring causes a series of bubbles to form, imparting an airy quality to the sweet warm tea. The clean taste of the fresh mint infused into the drink would end any meal on a high note.
As I finish, I contemplate how much I have thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the evening at Figs. The wait staff is professional, polite and attentive. When the bill arrives, I’m pleased to find I’ve not broken the bank. Leaving full and satisfied, I can’t help but think that this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.