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November 13, 2013

Riad Idrissy: Best in Fez

A 400-year-old riad is reborn as a dreamy Moroccan guesthouse and romantic garden retreat.

Until recently, John Twomey and Robert Johnstone were best known for their stellar credentials on the London restaurant scene: Twomey as the force behind Ten Bells, the historic pub that’s now home to a permanent spin-off of the celebrated pop-up restaurant, Young Turks. And Johnstone, as maître d’ at The Ivy, then the reservations manager at notoriously hard-to-book The Wolseley.

Now the two have teamed up to create Riad Idrissy, the hottest new address in Fez, Morocco’s most seductive imperial city. Equal parts boutique guest house, restaurant and cooking school, the enchanting riad recently opened for its first full season after seven years of painstaking restoration.

“I’ve always loved Morocco and I’ve always gotten tremendous pleasure in bringing a new lease of life to characterful properties,” Twomey says, “whether it’s the 18th-century pub in London or the 1930s printing works I lived in for 10 years.” And so, on a weekend jaunt through the warren of medieval alleys that is Fez, Twomey wound up buying this 17th-century merchant’s house on a whim. (He paid the deposit with cash from an ATM.)

The four-room riad, anchored by a central courtyard, luxuriates in antique details: intricately carved plaster, zellige tiling and towering cedar doors. But then, with a nod to Morocco’s French connection, Art Deco furniture blends with African accents, including a stunning fantasia saddle, all curated by Johnstone, who studied design before training to be a chef.

The adjacent Ruined Garden is his real playground, though. This Johnstone has transformed from the rubble of a once-grand home into an open-air cafe bursting with fruit trees and gardenias.

“We didn’t dot the I’s and cross the T’s on purpose,” Johnstone says, “We wanted to evoke something more romantic, less polished.” Ergo the hopscotched remains of a faded mosaic floor and a partially crumbled wall.

A new al fresco kitchen sets the stage for the cooking school, where Johnstone shares his particular passion for 1,900-year-old Roman recipes (like chicken marinated in lovage, homemade fish sauce and defrutum). Meanwhile his sous chef, Najia, a sweet yet formidable Moroccan matriarch, teaches “souk snacks” like charmoula-bathed sardines fried in a crisp semolina coating.

For Sunday brunch Johnstone smokes river trout in the chimney with almond wood. And if you’re able to snag a table for dinner, you might enjoy mechoui — a leg of lamb rubbed in a puree of dates, black olives and ras el hanout, and wrapped in a freshly-picked banana leaf. It’s slowly barbecued over the hearth’s embers. For seven hours.

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read more: 02. Sleep | boutique | historic | romantic | 05. Eat | 06. Drink

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