My friends and I agree: we've had few dining experiences as purely pleasant as the recent evening when we watched dusk filter through the tree branches while lounging on banquettes in the second floor dining room of Marrakech Restaurant. Several things contributed to this conviviality. Good conversation, for one. A crisp, young-tasting bottle of red Moroccan wine, for another. But mostly, it was the ambiance created by being in a foreign-feeling room in a quiet old house, sampling unfamiliar dishes with good friends. The food seemed almost a footnote.
So it is that the owners of this new Moroccan restaurant(one of them the former owner of the late Casablanca) have demonstrated how well they understand that the difference between an excellent dining experience and an average one depends on more than just the quality of the food. And so it was, because of atmosphere with allure to spare, that I deemed this visit, my second, a success, despite toughish stewed beef and less than perfectly fresh fish.
My first visit had been successful, too. But that evening, the success was very much because of the food: a flawless Cornish hen, fork-tender hunks of lamb, couscous so fluffy as to seem otherworldly and delicately cubed bits of fruit in their own ambrosial juices, made simultaneously more frivolous and more authoritative by a murmur of rose essence.
Such culinary enticements come in the form of a five-course, evening-only meal. (Marrakech plans to open for lunch before long, as well as to introduce a menu that will offer a la carte selections along with the prix fixe meals.) The first course is lentil soup, a deep-orange broth circulated through not only with lentils and chickpeas but also with bits of gently congealed egg white that lend a pasta-like consistency to this soup, which is evocative of minestrone. A bracing hit of cilantro, however, reminds diners that they're on the southern shores of the Mediterranean. Inch-thick slices from a round loaf of Moroccan bread, rife with fennel seeds and shiny with an egg glaze, prove vital -- and perfect -- for sopping up the last dregs of liquid from the bottom of the bowl.
"Salad" seems a mundane word for what comes next: a thinly layered mash of boiled, lemon-spiked eggplant that's an organic shade of brown surrounded on a bright orange and blue platter by alternating pinwheels of marinated cucumbers and a pico de gallo-like tomato relish. The cukes' mild, sweet crunchiness is a perfect foil to the tomatoes' lip-smacking tartness.
Then there's Morroco's famed bastilla, or pigeon pie. At Marrakech (as in most Moroccan restaurants located in the western hemisphere) this is translated into a tart made of chicken and ground almonds tucked into a browned, brittle dome of layered phyllo pastry. The flakiness and aridity of the pastry is played up by a dusting of cinnamon and powdered sugar, which settles with profusion over the pie's top. What looks like a dessert that someone got carried away with is, in reality, a truly lovely blending of sugar and spice with hearty, meaty flavors. I've decided that this dish plus a side of vegetable-laden couscous will make up the perfect lunch when Marrakech begins opening its doors for the midday crowd.
It's in the entrees that Marrakech's kitchen sometimes misses the beat. Out of five I sampled, three were excellent, one passable and one -- a Chef's Special of red snapper -- downright disappointing, doubly so because of the savory promise sent up by its charmoula sauce, a red, thoroughly Mediterranean-tasting, olive-laced gravy. The problem lay primarily in the fact that the fish was a day or three past its prime. And that it was overcooked to the point of being tough, to boot. A couple of intensely iodiney shrimp swam listlessly in the gravy; two fat scallops weren't enough to offset the failure of the other fishy elements. Frustrated, I spooned a few mouthfuls of the tantalizing charmoula sauce over bites of couscous in an effort to in some small measure enjoy the lemony, tomatoey concoction. That same night, the beef part of the beef couscous wasn't up to par. The large squares of meat buried under a stew of tenderly steamed vegetables and couscous were flavorful enough, but they were less than satisfactory on the texture scale, being tough and almost dry.
In the company of lesser fare, the beef couscous would have hardly merited a complaint. But it, like the snapper, suffered by being compared to the near-perfection attained by some of the other entrees. Particularly stiff competition was presented in the kitchen's deft handling of that other red meat prominent in the cuisine of northern Africa: lamb. The kotban, for example -- skewers of charcoal-broiled, marinated lamb leg -- presented an idealized melding of taste and tenderness. For all its soulful simplicity, however, it was outdone by the lamb mrouzia: firm cubes of fibrous -- yet amazingly fork-tender -- lamb marinating in an exuberantly sweet honey sauce. A few wheat-colored, whole, peeled almonds and a sprinkling of ecru sesame seeds brought some visual levity to the dark-hued affair.
For a study in contrasts, go with a friend and share the lamb mrouzia and the tagine souiri, a saffron-based, whole cornish hen that provides a piquant yin to the lamb's dulcet yang. Wedges of hard-boiled egg perch in the joints of this superbly cooked bird, whose limbs disembody themselves from the carcass with disarming ease when given a gentle tug. The hen's pale celadon gravy of saffron and turmeric continually reminded me of a tomatillo verde sauce. Again, a handful of whole, golden almonds graced the serving platter.
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And what would a North African meal be without couscous? The couscous (with various additions) is offered as an entree, rather than being a regular element of each five-course meal, but it's not to be missed. It's almost as standard to the Moroccan dining experience as rice is to a Chinese meal. It's surprising to find myself waxing so ecstatic about a mound of pebbleized pasta, but the proper cooking of couscous is a complicated operation, one involving twice steaming the stuff and twice letting it rest. Such care in preparation deserves accolades when the result, as it is here, is such a delectably dewy, airy cloud.
A caveat: part of what made my second visit to Marrakech so enchanting was the near-solitude in which my party dined. We were one of only two groups in the restaurant's entire upstairs section. I have little doubt that Marrakech -- whose owners are choosing not to advertise or stage a grand opening brouhaha until they've been up and running long enough to grow into any resulting upsurge in business -- will handle a restaurant full of patrons as gracefully as it caters to a few. But I must admit that when word leaks out about this exotic new addition to Houston's culinary scene, and when the crowds start coming, as they surely will, a small part of me will lament the lost romance of dining in quiet seclusion amidst the tree branches.
Marrakech Restaurant, 500 Westheimer, 942-0800.
lamb mrouzia (includes five-course meal), $19.50;
couscous with beef (includes five-course meal), $19.95.