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Moorish behavior

Ibiza serves up Mediterranean tapas in a theatrical space

I love Imperial Fez. The Moroccan food prepared by the owner-chefs, Rafih and Rita Benjelloun, is everything it should be, and is served in an exotic, carpet-covered dining room full of great music. The flavors — fruity, sweet and savory — are all played against one another with perfection.

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The owners themselves are delightful. They are totally devoted to their clientele's pleasure and I've seldom met such big-hearted people, even in an industry devoted to hospitality.

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OK, I admit I don't much like the belly dancing they host, but I'm in a definite minority there.

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The Benjellouns have now opened Ibiza (2285 Peachtree Road, 404-352-3081), a tapas restaurant, immediately next door to the Fez. The restaurant is one of the most wonderfully designed dining rooms I've seen in our city in quite some time. By the same man who did the recent redesign of Baraonda, it features a Moorish motif befitting the architecture of Sevilla as well as Ibiza when both were under the rule of Islam. (Rita Benjelloun is half-Spanish and lived some years in Sevilla, arguably the most beautiful city in the world.)

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I met the designer at the restaurant the evening of my visit and he told me that the project took nine months, including several re-dos of the upholstery fabrics in the luxurious pillowed booths. There are few straight lines in the place. Arches, exotic lighting, draped fabrics, vivid colors and patterns all create a marvelous theatrical space.

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In fact, the restaurant will soon be hosting regular flamenco performances on a stage in the middle of the restaurant, under theater lighting. I can't wait! I'll even forgive the Benjellouns their belly dancers if they host some first-rate flamenco dancers and singers.

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I have one complaint — and it's not insignificant. Most of the cooking here is being done by Mrs. Benjelloun. All the food is delicious, but very little of it is actually the kind of food you'd eat in Spain. Indeed, there's not even a slice of ham on the menu. A paella will be added soon, but, right now, there's not a gazpacho in sight.

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When she stopped by our table, I asked her why. "Atlanta is not ready for real Spanish food," she replied. "So we are doing a selection of Mediterranean food."

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Of course, it's true that Ibiza, one of Europe's most popular playgrounds off the eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain in the Balearic archipelago, does turn up flavors besides the purely Spanish.

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But I have heard this claim that Atlanta is not ready for authentic Spanish cuisine before and I think it's quite wrong. I heard it at the short-lived Andaluz on Peachtree and I wonder if that's what really killed that charming spot.

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As I said, though, the food at Ibiza is terrific. My friend Michael and I plowed through a hearty selection. We ate luscious babaghanouch with pita bread and bruschetta of toasted French bread simply topped with vibrantly flavored chopped tomatoes and olive oil touched with garlic. (I have eaten this a zillion times for breakfast in Sevilla.)

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We ordered seared scallops in an amazing saffron cream sauce and fresh asparagus with roasted garlic and globs of warmed goat cheese. Buttery chicken was baked with a mascarpone sauce and Spanish paprika. Roasted quail legs — four of them — were served with warm port and honey berries. We finished with a creamy cheese with roasted figs.

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We skipped dessert, being way too full, but were again mystified by the odd choices of items like carrot cake. Why not dark melted chocolate on toasted bread with salt? It would be the perfect and authentic conclusion to such a meal.

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We did sample very good Turkish coffee, strongly hit with lemon essence. I inverted my cup so someone on staff could read my fortune in the grounds streaking the cup. Nobody would, so I concluded wealth and fame were just around the corner.

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We did forgo the staff's offer to move to the patio to smoke a hookah. Hell, they didn't even have any hashish — just some flavored tobacco. If I'm going to regress to my freshman year at college, I want a hookah that will make me see Grace Slick chasing a white rabbit.

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Feedback

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Curmudgeonly e-mail of the week from "Jake Harvey," responding to last week's column, with my responses inserted:

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"You want to slash your wrists over Richard Blais leaving One Midtown Kitchen? You have eaten there, right?"

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No, I just print what Richard tells me to.

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"Foie gras in this country is almost always from ducks."

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What does that have to do with Chicago making the sale of foie gras illegal?

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"Marvin Woods, eh? Well at least no one will have to suffer though his painful cooking show anymore."

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Woods is replacing Drew Van Leuvan at Spice. Whether that means his cooking show will end, I don't know.

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"Daddy D'z is like most other BBQ joints around — filthy. Try Pig 'n' Chik. Fat Matt's is kind of a tourist trap for BBQ, don't you think?"

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Daddy D'z is not filthy. It is, um, ramshackle. I like Pig 'n' Chick's chopped barbecue, but if Fat Matt's is a tourist trap, Pig 'n' Chick is, too. ...

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From Andy Davis: "I was quite surprised at your pronouncement of greatness concerning the salt and pepper squid at Hong Kong Harbour.

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"That restaurant has never failed me, but the squid dish there doesn't come close to my favorite version at Canton Cooks in Sandy Springs. What I like best about the Canton version is that it doesn't have a heavy batter coat. If you do make a trip up there, be sure to ask for some hot pepper (homemade chili oil with pepper flakes and garlic) to drizzle onto the squid."

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You know what? Andy is right. Hong Kong Harbour's squid does vary from visit to visit. But I always do drizzle the same stuff on my squid there as Andy does at Canton Cooks.



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