Phoenecia reborn: “It’s Mom’s show; we’re just here to help her”

(From left, Inaam, Sonya, William and Nadia Khazaal)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Less than half a year after their sudden, shocking loss reverberated throughout West Seattle and beyond, the Khazaal family is ready to get back into the business of nourishing people with warmth and friendship as well as good food.

The family restaurant, whose newly painted awning now reads simply Phoenecia, instead of Phoenecia at Alki, is weeks away from reopening, under the wing of Inaam Khazaal, who was about to celebrate her 40th anniversary of marriage to Phoenecia proprietor Hussein Khazaal (left), when he died in his sleep last August at age 63. Instead of a family anniversary party, a celebration of the beloved restaurateur’s life brought hundreds to Alki on a mild summer night, to share stories, song, fondness, and food.

Five months later, the family business is about to reopen. “I am so proud of her,” says Sonya Khazaal, patting her mom. “She is doing so well.”

How did Mrs. Khazaal decide to go ahead and reopen the restaurant, to continue the life’s work, pride and joy of her husband?

She replies with a gentle smile and soft voice. “I thought, what would he do if I was gone? And I knew he would continue with the business. I prayed … and I feel like he said, ‘OK’.”

Son William: “She called me one day and said, ‘This is what we are doing’.”

Mrs. Khazaal and children William, Sonya and Nadia made time to meet with me this week inside the renovated restaurant, while their new chef Byron worked feverishly on test versions of dishes old and new that they plan to offer. They say they are weeks away from opening – not days, but certainly not months, either.

Some things will be different.

First, the restaurant’s look.

“It’s a shock when you walk in,” admits Sonya. “It’s different.”

It’s not a dramatic rearrangement of the space, the Khazaals say, but there are definite differences. New counter seating is in place between the dining tables and the kitchen entrance, with wine bottles in new shelving where an armoire once held them. (Hussein Khazaal’s trophy from a Bite of Seattle contest win in the mid-’80s is still there, though.) The carpet is gone . “More rustic,” offers Sonya.

Most of the east wall of the restaurant is a huge chalkboard where the daily specials will be written, not just hot dishes but also cheeses.

Specials will be a staple of the menu, rather than a fixed set of dishes you will find there time and time again. And that, they say, is in the tradition of Hussein Khazaal – “most people never saw a menu – it would be, whatever Dad would recommend.” After months of work, they believe they have recreated some of his specialties – not so easy since, William says while tapping his temple, most of his father’s recipes were in his head. But Inaam Khazaal did some of the cooking in the early days, when Phoenecia was all Middle Eastern cuisine, and with the help of the cook who worked with her husband, they have recreated some of the classics, through a lot of trial and error.

The Phoenecia lamb will be offered, says Sonya. Other dishes people would remember? I ask. Lamb with eggplant; wild mushroom pasta dish; Moroccan pasta; hummus and baba ganoush.

One example of the new food – They are experimenting with octopus, instead of calamari. And a food that’s neither old nor new may well turn out to be the smash hit of the new Phoenecia: “A lot of people don’t know he did pizza,” offers William. “He was experimenting a lot in the last six months … we want to build on that, with artisan-style pizza.”

A few examples are shown. (No, we didn’t try – our ethics code prohibits freebies, including food – but we can honestly say it looked and smelled heavenly.) Here’s one:

They’re planning ingredients like spicy coppa, braised chicken, Nicoise olives, chanterelle mushrooms, cipollini onions, and seasonal ingredients, like squash, as well as local favorites like Mama Lil’s Peppers. And they’re making their own sausage. Cheeses will include buffalo mozzarella and/or whole-milk mozzarella. Most pizzas will be drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil for a finish.

But the real signature is likely to be the crust. Call it, the 2-day, 3-minute pizza:

William has been studying pizza science. They have procured an oven that will bake the pizzas at a much-higher temperature than most, 850 degrees – that means just a few minutes. And the two days refers to the dough, which will ferment that long (part of the time in the refrigerator). When it hits the heat, the periphery of the crust puffs up – take another look at the crust in the photo above, and the air pocket inside.

Yet the Phoenecia changes are not just about what’s on the menu. The philosophy is a little different, says William. “Before, it was very upscale, white tablecloth, spendy. People would come here for a special occasion, but couldn’t come here all the time. So we wondered, how could we do it, to where people COULD come all the time? … We’ll have lots of items under $10, small plates, tapas style.”

During my visit, they bring out some examples of those dishes as well, including flatiron steak with arugula, chicken in saffron sauce, a version of caprese salad, and prawns:

“So, that’s instead of one thing for $25,” William continues. “But we’ll still have some main courses, for people who want that.” (That’s where some of his father’s famous dishes will come in.)

The staff is “old and new” – new chef Byron comes all the way from Australia – but the table-busing staff is coming back. “They’re so excited!” says Sonya. “We treat the employees like family,” adds her mom. Customers, too: “We want everyone to feel this is like home.”

And the sense of home will extend to as many local ingredients as possible – including trips to the Farmers’ Market, as Hussein Khazaal had so often made. Coffee will be from Stumptown; cured meats from Zoe and Salumi, where, Mrs. Khazaal says, her husband was the inspiration for the lamb prosciutto that you will again find at Phoenecia; ice cream from Husky Deli, and possibly another dessert offering from nearby Alki Bakery.

New chef Byron, who we are told is “camera-shy,” nonetheless finally is coaxed out of the kitchen to show the bottled beer selection that Phoenecia will offer. They arranged the 10 bottles on one of those new counters, so we got a pan to give beer aficionados a closer look:

The word “Belgian” was mentioned a lot; they say the wine selection is extensive too.

Overall, for both beverages and food, “we don’t want to be like anything else you can find on the beach,” William declares. Not that it’s a dig at anyone else nearby – in fact, a friend from Christo’s on Alki wanders in during our interview and amiably joins the chat off and on, particularly when talk turns to memories of Hussein Khazaal.

When Phoenecia reopens, it will offer dinner, from 5 till “whenever”; before long, maybe sometime in spring, they will add lunch, and eventually be open 7 days a week.

All three children will have roles in the restaurant operation, but William makes it clear: “It’s Mom’s show; we’re just here to help her.”

But just that first night is bound to be a rush – opening Phoenecia to the world, without Mr. Khazaal there.

Or, perhaps he will be, in a way. “We feel him,” says Sonya, “this crazy strength. We weren’t sure we could do it, but … it seems very powerful, and healing.”

19 Replies to "Phoenecia reborn: "It's Mom's show; we're just here to help her""

  • rlv January 15, 2010 (8:00 pm)

    This is the best news!

    To the whole Khazaal family: thank you for carrying on, and for giving us all the chance to have Phoenicia be our new old hangout.

  • Glenn January 15, 2010 (8:02 pm)

    I have been so happy to have met the Khazaals and to have been a part of rebuilding the restaurant. They are an amazing family and I truly wish them the best of luck!

  • cjboffoli January 15, 2010 (8:56 pm)

    Excellent piece, TR! Nicely done. Mt past dining experiences at Phoenecia certainly were memorable. It sounds like this refresh is a perfect way for his family to honor Hussein’s legacy.

  • westside January 15, 2010 (9:41 pm)

    Sounds wonderful! My mouth is watering. I am so happy for you all – the triumph to keep living takes courage but he would be soo proud. He doesn’t want you to be sad and not live. In his name..thank you.

  • Will Banchero January 15, 2010 (9:55 pm)

    Just came from a food tasting dinner and the food was incredible. Great variety of dishes.The addition of a bar fits in great with the restaurant. It still has the same comforting atmosphere that it’s been known for throughout the years. Can’t wait for it to open again.

  • westwoodmom January 15, 2010 (10:08 pm)

    Such good news! I have a memory of eating there with my husband and young son, who found a pistachio baklava with rose ice cream delightful. Mrs Khazal thought it was so cute how much he loved it that she brought him another scoop. I can’t wait to go!

  • Leroniusmonkfish January 15, 2010 (10:30 pm)

    Mr. Hussein Khazaal would be so proud of his family and the WS community.

  • grr January 16, 2010 (12:34 am)

    I guarantee we’ll be there as often as we possibly can. Hussein is always in our hearts, and we will joyfully embrace OUR part of returning ‘something special’ to this maginficent family.

  • Tiara Johnson Andress January 16, 2010 (2:27 am)

    So proud of you all and the strength and love your family embodies. Can’t wait to come in and eat! You deserve all the support in the world. Congratulations on reopening!

  • Kyla Pocock January 16, 2010 (9:48 am)

    I went to the tasting last night at Phoenicia and the food was incredible. Some of the items we tasted were buffalo cheese caprese salad, chicken in a saffron cream sauce, portobello mushrooms in a balsamic reduction, a bean salad drizzled with basil olive oil, seared mushrooms and beef, two types of prosciutto–one pork and one lamb, spicy prawns, and their signature lamb curry. We also had two desserts: a pear poached in red wine and served alongside Husky ice cream, drizzled with the port wine reduction, and an absolutely fabulous bananas foster.
    Please go and support the Khazaals when they reopen Phoenicia. You won’t be disappointed with the new menu or with the change of decor.

  • RogerTango January 16, 2010 (9:51 am)

    This is fantastic news! I’ll be there with bells on!

  • Jim S. January 16, 2010 (10:33 am)

    I’m looking forward to the : “Something special – Just for you”. Best wishes for a speedy, and successful reopening!

  • LMA January 16, 2010 (2:31 pm)

    thats great! good for you

  • Anne Marie January 17, 2010 (1:50 pm)

    The food tasting event was fabulous. An inspired menu with creative presentation of new and original dishes including awesome appetizers, salads, specials and so many surprises. Congratulations to the Khazaal family!

  • Meghan January 18, 2010 (12:28 am)

    Yea! I can’t wait to come try absolutely everything on the menu. I’m really excited about this new pizza.

  • DrD January 18, 2010 (1:01 am)

    On a couple of visits, Hussein made us what he called (as I recall) “Egyptian Pizza, 1,000 year old recipe”. It was incredibly delicious and unbelievably spicy-hot. The kind of thing you have to just keep eating to avoid the after-burn. I hope they can reproduce that one!
    All around good news for the family and the WS community! Thanks for the great reporting.

  • Phoebe Underwood January 18, 2010 (5:41 pm)

    I am so plesaed to read the family is re-opening The Phonecia and offering many of Hussein’s “specialties” (it’s true, I never saw a menu) in addition to lighter, smaller, less expensive dishes! Hoo-ray!

  • marysh January 21, 2010 (10:16 pm)

    This is great to read and hear.

  • boo hoo January 28, 2010 (6:23 pm)

    Hallelujah! I can hardly wait to have more special times at Phoenicia and know Hussein will be there with us.

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