Moroccan in the Free World
Mamounia and Marrakesh Pit Mood Against Food
Lately, I've been mildly obsessed with Moroccan food, salivating over a recipe for preserved lemons (common in Moroccan recipes) and poring over one man's account of re-creating chicken tagine (an iconic dish) in a recent issue of Cook's Illustrated. Moroccan cuisine owes its particular melding of flavors to a history as a country invaded by others, its food making the most of spices like cinnamon, cumin, and caraway. There is an abundance of dueling flavors—sweet and sour, sweet and savory—with fruit a regular component. My resistance to fruit in entrée dishes notwithstanding, I wanted to investigate.
However, my sensitivity to exoticization kicks into overdrive when it comes to ethnic restaurants, Moroccan in particular. Moroccan restaurants strive for that feeling of romantic authenticity people desire. At popular spots Mamounia and Marrakesh, diners are seated on leather cushions around low tables in dining spaces that are astonishingly dark with tapestries, wall hangings, and tent-like ceilings, while servers perform ritualistic group hand washings and belly dancers wind through the room. Each of these components may be authentic, but outside of the constructed sultan's lair-cum-opium den, we're still in Seattle, and the whole experience can feel dangerously kitschy. All I want is real, good food.
Capitol Hill's Mamounia is dominated by its sultry Arabian Nights lounge atmosphere. Half the space is dedicated to the bar, and the front windows are covered in thick gilded curtains. On a recent Sunday night, Mamounia was filled with several large groups and couples on dates. A belly dancer performed an impressive 20-minute set and people joined her on the floor. (There is a male belly dancer the last Wednesday of every month.) Everyone around us was having a great time; it was a party.
If only the party had extended to my mouth. A beet salad ($2.95)—cubes of sweet root slicked in oil and vinegar—was delicious, and the lamb tangia appetizer ($6.45), featuring bits of meat stewed in a thick tomato and garlic sauce, was robust. What Mamounia's entrées seemed to lack, though, was cohesion—Couscous Royale ($12.95), with seven vegetables and lamb, was a pile of couscous topped with (cold) vegetables and two small pieces of grilled lamb. Technically it was a dish, but truthfully, it was three different things, cooked separately, put on one plate. Chicken with preserved lemons and green olives ($11.95) presented the same problem—one wedge of lemon on top of half a Cornish hen, with four olives placed on the periphery of the plate to fulfill the promise of the dish's title. The hen, for being overcooked, had not absorbed any of the saltiness or tartness the preserved lemons promised.
Afterward, I wondered if I had fallen prey to the exotic trap, pinning too many flavor expectations on the meal. Admittedly, I function under the romantic notion that every meal should feel mildly transcendent—that's not practical. I decided to try Marrakesh, the beloved Moroccan restaurant in Belltown.
Marrakesh is not a party. The restaurant is two rooms deep and dark, the canopy ceiling white and billowy. There are textured wall hangings and multiple carpets, but I can only remember that the place felt nondescript, beige, and surprisingly comforting. The windows are not covered in elaborate drapery—there are no windows. Eating here is my idea of a good time.
Forbidden to order à la carte, we picked two entrées (couscous with lamb, and chicken with preserved lemons and green olives) and were served a five-course meal ($17.50 per person). The food at Marrakesh is solid, the flavors deep. Generous cuts of meat, complete with fat, are slow-cooked to soft perfection. The lamb, enough for two to share, was buried under honeyed couscous, a heap of vegetables (the chickpeas still firm), and raisins; the meat splintered into moist strands. There weren't any wedges of preserved lemon on top of the Cornish hen—there were slices of them in the sauce!—and the hen's skin was browned, faintly crispy. I left Marrakesh with a curiosity to try more. I'm going to go back and order the hare. I am reconsidering my stance on fruit in entrées.