Fassia's menu claims that b'stilla is one of Fez, Morocco's "most prestigious" dishes. That's saying something since Fez is considered Morocco's most important culinary city. With its labor-intensive stewing and pastry layering, b'stilla is meant only for weddings. I'm told by Drissia Rafael, the co-owner of Fassia in San Mateo, it's really just for the fanciest weddings, too.
When prepared as meticulously as the rendition Drissia learned from her mom (the "best cook" she knows), it's a regal sweet and savory pastry masterpiece that would be prestigious in any major culinary city. Today's dessert trend might skew more savory than sweet, but the b'stilla is an example of a dish that has bridged the gap for centuries.
The classic recipe from Fez uses squab meat, but Rafael replaces it with duck partly because squab or pigeon is less tempting to American dining eyes. Most versions in the U.S. use chicken, which is far more boring and dry to Rafael, and lacks the appealing gaminess of the squab that duck can almost fulfill.
Fassia's b'stilla is a day-and-a-half affair, starting the night before service by marinating the duck. Then Rafael simmers the meat for a long time with plenty of ginger, saffron, onions, garlic, and cilantro. The final assembly requires a sculptor's precision, alternating layers of phyllo dough, duck meat, scrambled eggs, and almonds.
Like how that pinch of salt and sprig of rosemary works wonders with caramel, its brush with sweetness elevates the overall savory character of the tender morsels of duck, the same texture as great pulled pork. The fluffy eggs provide wonderful contrast to the almonds, all serving as the perfect partners leading to the duck centerpiece.
Over the summer Drissia and husband/co-chef Jean Roger transformed their half Moroccan- half French restaurant Café Tradition, into the 100% Fez-inspired concept.
Along with the b'stilla, there's an intriguing salmon tagine perfumed with preserved in-house lemons; a trio of Moroccan salads with eggplant purée, a spread of whipped spinach and preserved lemons, and excellent carrots marinated in olive oil, fresh cilantro, and parsley; and vivid and smooth fig sorbet with obligatory elaborate mint tea.
It's that b'stilla that the table won't stop talking about at Fassia, though. It's a far cry from a duck pot pie mixed with baklava. After a few bites, there's no question that this is a prestigious sweet, savory, and meaty pastry treat. And no one even had to get married.
123 W. 25th Ave., San Mateo; (650) 345-2233.