Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Beautiful Friendship

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Or at least, that’s the thought that drifted lazily through my mind as I finished the first Moroccan meal of my life at an affordable little Moroccan restaurant in Wicker Park. Located at 1413 N. Ashland Ave, Marrakech is only few minute walk from the Division Street stop of the CTA Blue line and only a few more from the Damen stop. It is an uninspiring-looking place below street level surrounded by cheap delis and rundown storefronts. Yet as my friends and I descended into the restaurant, a sweet and spicy aroma met us at the door along with a pleasant, older gentleman who would be our server for the evening.

Inside it is larger than you would expect. The front room is white with ornate mirrors and lanterns covering the walls while the back room is pink, and along with the decorative lanterns decorating the walls, jewelry, Moroccan shoes, and pottery are for sale. The windows are decorated with richly colored curtains while the tables are covered in golden tapestries and then clear plastic. The furniture is simple—distressed white chairs and small tables—but comfortable, clean, and practical. While I am not familiar with traditional Moroccan music, it is very likely this is what was playing in the background—it was certainly suited to the atmosphere of the restaurant.

We were invited to sit wherever we wanted, as the restaurant was completely empty when we arrived an hour after opening. We chose a table in the back room and Louis (the nickname I affectionately mentally tagged our waiter with as the evening progressed) presented us with our menus. He wasn’t initially helpful when I explained that we’d never had Moroccan food and asked what was best. His response? “Everything.” He wasn’t lying. He explained that they kept the menu small (there are only ten entrees, six appetizers, two salads and a soup, three desserts, and three beverage choices) to focus on quality. But he did eventually suggest that if we liked eggplant at all, the zaalouk might be a good choice.

After some debate, my two friends and I decided to share two appetizers and three entrees. First to come out were the “Moroccan coffee with authentic spices” ($1.50) and the “Moroccan tea with mint” ($1.90). The tea tasted very much like it smelled—light and floral, perhaps slightly perfumed. Yet the flavor was not overwhelming and it complimented the rest of the meal quite nicely. I had ordered the coffee and was somewhat disappointed when it came out black with no cream or sugar on the side. I don’t like black coffee and so braced myself for what I knew would be another cup of bitter, acidic black coffee. I was very wrong. This coffee was meant to be consumed black. It had a sweet and spicy aroma that translated more subtly to the flavor. It was smooth, ever so slightly sweet, and deliciously strong; it too complimented our food wonderfully. I already miss it.

Next Louis brought out the zaalouk ($3.50), hommus [sic] ($2.75), and some toasted pita for dipping. The zaalouk really was quite good, and I thanked Louis for suggesting it. Comprised of grilled eggplant mashed with tomatoes, cilantro, and garlic, each flavor was apparent in the mix. It had a bite to it as well as a sort of smoky, barbecue-like flavor. The hommus was nothing terribly exciting or inventive as far as hummus goes, but it was a solid example of what you’d expect. It was topped with olive oil and what was potentially a mild paprika. After some experimenting, we decided that while each dish was good on its own, it was also tasty to pile both dips together on a piece of pita. There was quite a bit of both the zaalouk and hommus (if ordering two appetizers, they could easily be split between four or five people), and we ran out of pita, but Louis was kind enough to bring us another basket.

For our main course, we decided on the chicken pastille ($10.50), kaftka kabob ($8.50), and couscous with lamb ($10.50). I was very disappointed when I was informed they were out of merguez (a Moroccan sausage filled with seasoned and spiced ground beef, served with harissa), but this was probably just as well as it was very similar to the kaftka kabob and gave me an opportunity to try the couscous, the house’s signature dish. I am really not a lamb person and had wanted to order the couscous with beef or chicken, but Louis was very persuasive and convinced me that I should try the couscous in its most authentic form.

The couscous was served with zucchini, potatoes, carrots, and chickpeas in addition to large piece of lamb, possibly a section of leg. It was rich and buttery, and the vegetables were still slightly crisp and very flavorful. And with the lamb, I was again pleasantly surprised by the Moroccan approach and its ability to make me reconsider a food I had decided I didn’t like. The meat was tender and juicy and fell right off the bone. It was not too gamey, though it was a bit fatty. Overall I was incredibly impressed.

The kaftka kabob was seasoned ground beef cooked on a skewer served with harissa and a side of rice. The meat was seasoned nicely and cooked medium well. The harissa complimented it well but was not like any harissa I’d ever made or had. It was more like a spicy ketchup than anything else. Nevertheless, it was a solid dish.

As for the chicken pastille, the menu describes it as diced chicken, seasonings, and sweet almonds in phyllo dough. Louis told us it was a sweet dish when we asked if it would be at all spicy, which we assumed meant mild. Again, we were wrong. What neither the menu nor Louis informed us of was that it is served covered in powdered sugar and cinnamon. When the plate was set in front of us, we all stared at it in shock and perhaps a bit of horror and disgust. We poked at it, tasted the sugar, and stared some more until one of my friends was finally brave enough to cut a piece off and take a bite. And then we all took a bite. And we were amazed. It was surprisingly delicious. The phyllo was light and flaky, the meat rich and juicy and tender. All the flavors were present, yet for some reason powdered sugar, cinnamon, and chicken went together very well. It was rather like eating a savory dessert, rich and creamy and sweet and salty and bizarre all at once. I still struggle to wrap my mind around the dish, but I would suggest it to anyone interested in a heartbeat.

In the end, we were too full to eat a proper dessert, though the baklawa [sic], sellou, and almond rolls were enticing. All told, before tip, our meal came to $45. The service was decent, if a bit slow. I believe that this may be a cultural difference, however, as any time we wanted something and felt we had waited long enough, Louis was very attentive and brought it right out. There are plenty of what appear to be vegetarian options on the menu, though I would ask to be certain. Marrakech is BYOB, with a $3 corking fee per bottle of wine or six-pack of beer. The restaurant is clean, the staff friendly, and the food wonderful. Chances are also good you’ll have it to yourself if you show up fairly early. Wicker Park doesn’t seem to get going until after 8pm.

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