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Figs' 'Big Night'

From the top: party biryani; Figs' owner Reem Azoury; dessert being shared at the table. (Patti Harburger)

Any small food establishment that has managed to thrive in the past few years deserves a pat on the back, which is only partly why Reem Azoury laid on an early fourth-anniversary spread at her Figs Fine Foods Café in the Palisades last night.

The evening had a warm “Big Night” vibe, with a long communal table formed from the café’s regular two-tops, a special-invite group of two dozen or so of Figs’ most supportive customers and friends, and the heavenly smell of spiced foods hanging in the air.

It seems that Azoury has achieved what she’d hoped for, in creating a comfortable neighborhood spot where folks can browse through her cookbooks, snack at benches strewn with smooshy pillows and enjoy a dynamic array of ethnic cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner. She makes introductions among whomever is in her café; before long, folks have found similar interests, shared contacts -- and Azoury’s community is further linked through her food.

Party guests and Upper Northwest D.C. couple Margaret Johnson and Ray Ottenberg have been weekly fans ever since Johnson found Figs while on a shopping expedition three years ago. “We love the character and energy of the place,” Johnson said. “You feel as though you could walk out of here onto a Mediterranean beach.” The couple picks up food to take home and orders catering for special occasions.

Another guest, Samia Melhem, lives in McLean and has known Azoury for 20 years. “I come here once a week on my way home from work to buy the dips – eggplant and chickpea. I’m Lebanese and know how to cook. But I could never make them like Reem does.”

Azoury’s usual Lebanese-Moroccan-Syrian menu gave way to Indian: great batches of vegetable samosas, beautifully decorated biryani rice, a tandoori-style chicken, curried chickpeas and nan, in addition to her signature creamy hummus, a lively harissa and minted labneh. For dessert, she filled baklava-type pastries with a napoleon custard cream, then graced them with chopped pistachios and a light orange-blossom syrup.

Azoury's rules. (Bonnie Benwick)

“I’m still alive!” she said, and then jokingly admitted to aberrant behavior: “Every now and then I’m in a good mood. That’s why I decided to have this party.” (A posting of Soup Etiquette rules at the spot where the daily crocks sit attests to Azoury’s self-proclaimed crankiness; see the photo. I prefer to think of her as a straight-shooter who pulls no punches. Then again, she has hired and fired a fair number of employees since opening in late fall of 2005. And if you're looking for her age to be reported here, forget it. She won't give it up without a fight.)

Khadija Banouas, the "Queen of Morocco." (Patti Harburger)

After dessert, Azoury thanked her tween-age children for keeping her focused and on track; her customer support system (singling out a few by name), and her lawyer, Claudia Himes, for helping Figs morph legally from a deli to a restaurant and for getting a liquor license underway.

Her biggest props went to Khadija Banouas, whom Azoury calls the “Queen of Morocco.” Banouas has been cooking at Figs for the past year and a half since she closed her own restaurant, Pyramids, at Sixth and Florida. Azoury met the Marrakesh native through an enthusiastic customer who knew the Figs’ owner needed another steady hand in the kitchen. Banouas has been adding depth to the menu ever since. Another connection, made the Figs way.

“I actually love having parties,” Azoury said at the end of the night. “We should do this more often.” Here’s hoping she does.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  October 16, 2009; 12:40 PM ET
 | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Figs Fine Foods  
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