El Morocco succeeds and delightsA melting pot of European and African culture, Morocco is home to a culinary legacy that would surely be envied the world over, were it better known outside of its national borders. Situated in the home of the former Bacco, El Morocco strives to bring us a little taste of that nation's gastronomic heritage, and, to a great extent, succeeds with flying colors.
The cuisine of Morocco cannot be easily summarized, but a dinner at this excellent new establishment will provide salient highlights. Although everything is available ý la carte, a great way to dine is to order the dinner for two ($49), a five-course mini-feast that, although not the 20-plus course epic customary in Morocco, is certainly more than adequate by way of an introduction.
Before getting to the food, a word about the business of dinner. As is traditional in Morocco, you will be expected to sit on large cushions on the floor, and will be encouraged to eat with your hands at a leisurely, if not languid, pace. Having lowered yourself into a suitably comfortable eating posture and brought yourself close enough to the low table that your food has at least a fighting chance of getting to your mouth, you're ready to start. At this point, a couple of words of advice are in order: If you know you are
coming here for dinner, make sure to wear loose clothing. Sitting cross-legged in tight trousers (or skirt) for protracted periods could lead to considerable discomfort, if not loss of circulation. The same goes for shoes: Clunky heels or hiking boots are best avoided.
Once you're settled in, one of the several immaculately-attired staff will come to your table to pour water over your hands. This is because you are going to be eating without the benefit of silverware. At this point, diners are presented with a large towel, which not only serves to dry the hands, but subsequently comes into use as an oversized napkin. If, like me, you are not the tidiest of eaters, then you will find this extremely useful.
The daily cuisine of Morocco, broadly speaking, consists of three major components: bread, couscous and the occasional tajine. The bread, which is crusty, round and flat, is baked daily, and, when torn into chunks or cut into wedges, serves as a utensil to either pick up morsels of food or mop up sauces. Couscous, which no longer has to be made from scratch, thank goodness, is one of the great food creations of all time. Made from semolina flour and rolled into tiny, separate grains, this wonderful pasta-like stuff forms the basis for countless dishes, whether they be vegetable or meat themed. Although the dinner for two doesn't include a couscous dish, El Morocco offers several ý la carte.
The tajine, which refers not only to the dish, but to the vessel in which it is prepared, is usually the centerpiece of a formal Moroccan banquet. The cooking vessel consists of two parts, a shallow base into which the food is placed and a conical lid with a chimney at the top. A masterpiece of economy, the shape of the tajine allows lesser cuts of lamb (or mutton), as well as chicken, to be slowly cooked over a low flame for several hours. Because the lid is so tall, any cooking liquids that evaporate will condense and fall back into the food, thereby cutting down on the amount of water required, and allowing the dish to be left alone for extended periods. By cooking in this way, meats are effectively subjected to both direct heat and the effects of steam, a technique that produces the most wonderfully succulent textures.
And so to the dinner for two. Starting with a very agreeable chickpea and chicken soup, you are next served a quartet of vegetables in various preparations. These include preserved carrots, minced and baked eggplant and roasted bell peppers. With the texture of chutney, but only moderately spiced, these little vegetable dishes were reminiscent of Spanish tapas (after all, Spain is but a hop and a skip away across the straits of Gibraltar).
Next comes one of the stars of the evening: the b'stilla. A traditional ceremonial dish, this is usually made with a very elaborate and incredibly thin pastry that takes hours to prepare. El Morocco's version is made with phyllo pastry, but that shouldn"t cause too much grief. In effect a large circular pie, the b'stilla is packed with chunks of chicken, sugar, almonds, hard boiled egg and various seasonings. The top is liberally dusted with confectioner's sugar, and the effect, at once both sweet and savory, is utterly captivating. This is a huge dish, and if there are only two of you dining, then I strongly advise against eating the whole thing, unless you want to lie around for a couple of hours while you make room for the next course. Next comes the tajine.
The main choices are Cornish game hen or lamb. A recently sampled Cornish game hen dish was close to perfection. Hot as can be (watch your fingers), this came in a classic preparation, with green olives and preserved lemon wedges. A staple of the Moroccan kitchen, preserved lemon gives a salty, citrusy tang to a dish that ordinary lemon juice just can't provide. Depending on the season, you might also expect to see apricots or other fruits used in combination with the meats and vegetables. Once this dish had cooled down to finger temperature, the moist chunks of chicken harmonized beautifully with the coriander-scented sauce and still-crunchy vegetables, making me want to rush out and buy a tajine at the earliest opportunity.
Finally, a plate of fruit to cleanse the palate. Although traditional pastry desserts are available, this is a pleasant way to end the meal. To drink, you can choose either traditional mint tea, or one of the selections off the very short, but quite agreeable wine list. All wines are $29 per bottle.
If you plan to eat at El Morocco, it's advisable to book well ahead, especially at weekends, as some dishes, like the b"stilla, can take several hours to prepare. Allow yourself plenty of time - at least a couple of hours - if you want to truly soak in the ambience and the subtleties of this wonderful cuisine. Under no circumstances will you be rushed: quite the contrary, in fact. The service at El Morocco is calm, knowledgeable and abundantly welcoming. This is a banner day for gastronauts, indeed.
Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.
El Morocco1256 W. 86th St. 844-1104 Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30-2:30 Dinner Monday-Saturday 5-9:30 Food : 4 stars
Atmosphere : 3 1/2 stars
Service : 4 stars