Dining Out: Diamond in the Rough

“I'd like the 1998 Guigal cotes du Rhone,” my wine-savvy friend said at the beginning of our first meal at the exotic Back Bay restaurant Jewel of Newbury, a place of excitement and some mystery. Our energetic host, the native Algerian Mouldi Sayeh, had greeted us with the kind of enthusiasm that implied we should do what he thought best.

Sayeh reached behind my friend and plucked a bottle from the shelf running above the tables. “We have 1999,” he said, as if discovering an even better treat than she had asked for. But my friend had seen 1998 on the wine list, and that was what she wanted. “What about the '98?” she asked. There was a hurt pause. “But, Madam,” the host replied with aplomb, “this is 2002!”

That's the way dinners go at Jewel of Newbury: Whatever you ask for, you get what Sayeh thinks you should get, and regardless of what's on the menu, you have what he and the kitchen staff made that day. Once you surrender to this simple truth, you can have a very good time and some good food.

My first encounter with Sayeh did not go well. Soon after he established his small restaurant in the basement of the luxury boutique hotel that he had already opened in an elegant townhouse between Fairfield and Gloucester streets, a colleague started telling me it was the best place to eat in Boston. She couldn't describe the food beyond saying that it was Mediterranean and fresh and good. One balmy evening I was strolling down Newbury Street just as she was saying goodbye to Sayeh after a supper she had clearly enjoyed. Sayeh and I began a long conversation about North African cuisine, during which I made the error of assuming that, because I knew a bit about Moroccan and Tunisian food, I might know something about the food of his home country. I was welcome to try his food, Sayeh said, when and if I left my preconceptions at the door.

So I wasn't eager to return. Then I was reminded of Jewel of Newbury when, after September 11, Sayeh was linked by the Boston Herald to the bin Laden family. The Herald reported that a man alleged to be one of Osama bin Laden's many brothers bought and sold condominiums in the same Boston wharf development and Cambridge complex as Sayeh. Sayeh responded by saying that, as a loyal American raising a family in the United States, he had been horrified by the terrorist attacks. When I spoke with him after my dinners, he said of the bin Ladens: “I went to school with these people. Of course, I know them. Of course, they come to my restaurant and bring clients and lawyers and other people here. I have the best place.” But after September, he said, his business had been terribly hurt: He had been forced to close for lunch and some nights for dinner altogether. “It was very difficult for me,” Sayeh said. More recently, customers have been returning, and hotel concierges who provide him with much of his business have kept sending clients.

The clientele I saw was certainly varied. The kind of glamorous young European crowd of indistinct and alluring ethnic background that frequents upper Newbury came in large groups for celebrations. The people Sayeh knew, he greeted loudly and embraced. It felt like a West Bank boîte. What nearly everyone seemed to have in common was an air of knowing they had found a hidden gem.

By our second visit, Sayeh was turning us into friends, too, inviting us up to the ground floor of the hotel and showing off the elaborate restorations he had done himself. When I described our original meeting, Sayeh apologized, conceding that when he had first opened, he felt the neighborhood was throwing up obstacles at every turn. That tide had turned, he said, long before the 11th; he showed us recent letters of support from members of the Boston establishment who wrote to say how much they continued to enjoy his restaurant.

The Jewel is really a kind of a club, built around the personality of the proprietor. The “dues” are hoping you'll find Sayeh in good humor—and being willing to take whatever the kitchen has to offer. The food is as my colleague said: Mediterranean, made with fresh and good ingredients, and simple. Sayeh supervises a rotating staff of cooks to turn out the kind of food he says he learned to make as a teenager in Algeria when his mother, slowed by asthma, was unable to cook for his sister and six brothers.

The dishes Sayeh brought us—or had his young and pleasant, if inexperienced, waiters bring us—were reminiscent of the simpler, homemade dishes I've tried on visits to Morocco and especially Tunisia. Nearly all the dishes contain garlic, cilantro, and good olive oil; the starch is rice or couscous flavored with onion and often saffron; the meat is lamb, cooked for two hours with spices such as harissa and a homemade spice mixture.

The halibut ($24) Sayeh served us was baked over a bed of eggplant, peppers, and squash that had been marinated with olive oil and spices and roasted in advance. It arrived sparklingly fresh, moist, and perfectly cooked, with vegetables that had an afterglow of sweet-hot red pepper. This halibut, along with the plain, slow-cooked lamb with sweet and hot spices ($26), and especially the deeply flavored roasted vegetables, are the kinds of dishes you wish your North African grandmother would make, if you had one.

The food is much like the wine—you take what there is, and once you get the feel of the place, you'll likely enjoy it. Sayeh told us what dishes had been made that day, took the measure of our preferences (meat, fish, vegetarian), and gave us what he thought we'd like. Mostly he was right. But when he ventures beyond the dishes he instinctually knows, his touch can be far less sure. His cooking is self-taught and improvisational, he says; the recipe books by the likes of Alain Ducasse that I saw when he invited us upstairs testify to his eagerness to experiment.

For dessert there was never anything other than baklava, which Sayeh told me he has local women prepare; you have to like intensely sweet pastry, or forgo dessert. (He promises more desserts with the addition of a new pastry chef.) There's also meticulously prepared tea made of fresh mint and green tea, heavily sweetened in the Arabic way and served in small glass beakers.

The Jewel is a labor of love, a curious and often rewarding adventure. The people who like it, and Sayeh, hang with him when the going gets tough. Find him in the right mood and you'll want to, too.