Road to Morocco

Belltown's new couscouserie offers authentic culinary romance.

WHEN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE finally fell apart in the 1920s, three European powers agreed to carve up the Maghreb (Muslim North Africa). Britain got Egypt, Italy took Libya, and Morocco went to France. The high-level landgrab left its cultural mark, as Arabs will be the first to tell you. Respectable Egyptians suffer from the stigma of being stuffy and unexciting, the big bores of the Middle East, while the lower-class Egyptian, like your average English yob, is a soccer hooligan. And Egyptian food, while we?re on the subject, is nothing to write your mummy about. So there. Libyans, like Italians, became enamored with the cult of the charismatic and deranged dictator. Mussolini is long gone, but Libya is still stuck with Col. Muammar Qaddafi. But Morocco! Morocco got lucky and inherited the French flair for food . So while the rest of the Maghreb is busy coming to terms with its colonial past, Moroccans have conquered the world with a secret weapon: couscous. If you, gentle Seattleite, haven?t been won over yet by this classic Berber banquet dish, it?s likely because until recently there was no real Moroccan restaurant or couscouserie hereabouts. But Marrakesh has arrived in Belltown. So line up to be won over. Marrakesh looms in the Arab imagination. It?s the last great oasis on the way south to the Sahara, a city of high red walls and towering palm trees, and for years its very name has conjured up romantic notions of desert battles and midnight feasts. Knowing this helps you to understand why the storefront housing the restaurant is painted brick red and why your menu is printed on red paper. Ignore the heavy-handed color scheme?the rest of the Marrakesh experience is as romantic as a magic-carpet ride. The interior is outfitted as a Bedouin tent, complete with rugs and finger bowls and ornate tapestries. Diners sit on cushions and eat with their hands, while servers attired in flowing robes deliver the food from silver trays. The best deal under the tent is ?The Royal Feast? (five courses/$17 per person). Strictly speaking, this prix-fixe menu applies to parties of four or more, but on a slow night, your server might make an exception. Our feast started with a plain yellow lentil soup, followed by the Salad Marrakesh, a medley of tomatoes and cucumbers in a carrot-eggplant pur饮 The excitement ratcheted up a notch with b'steeya, a delicate, flaky pastry filled with spiced chicken and sweet toasted almonds, fried, then dusted with sugar and cinnamon. To eat it the North African way, plunge the thumb and two fingers of your right hand into the pastry and scoop out a chunk. (Marrakesh provides diners with thick terry-cloth napkins, and your server will periodically come round with a silver pitcher to rinse your hands.) On to the main course. If it?s your first visit, couscous is a must. (Don?t worry about it being too spicy; Moroccan couscous isn?t fiery or hot like the Algerian and Tunisian versions you may have encountered in Europe.) A plateful of history is before you. A 13th-century Arabic cookbook translated into Spanish contains a description of wheat grains cooked in a rich meat broth and served with the meats and vegetables the broth was made from. The name of the dish? Kuskusu fityani?soldier?s couscous. At Marrakesh, you can choose between two less militant versions: Cous Cous Marrakesh, steamed semolina topped with your choice of chicken or lamb and seven seasonal veggies, or Cous Cous T?faya, zestier and, true to the Moroccan culinary tradition, sweet, topped with onions, raisins, and chickpeas cooked in a sweet ginger sauce. If meat is your thing, try m?rouzia, another dish from the Sahara, lamb cooked with onions and raisins in a thick honey sauce, tangy and sweet with a spicy undertone. A similar honey sauce is used for chicken with honey and prunes, also a great choice. End your meal with mint tea, which Moroccans drink constantly through the day. There is also a full wine and beer list. The Moroccan wines on the list are not yet available, but the management says they will soon be in stock. Finally, for parties of eight or more ($29 per person) and with three days notice, Marrakesh will go the extra mile and prepare the ultimate Moroccan dish, mechoui, a whole sheep cooked on a spit over a charcoal fire. (The eyeballs are considered a delicacy.) Bon app鴩t! hjafri@seattleweekly.com

 
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