Marrakech Moroccan Cafe: North African comfort-food
Hassan Elatiki, owner of Marrakech Moroccan Café and Grill, might consider starting his own version of Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" sketch, in which the late-night comic quizzes men and women on the street about basic geography, among other things. Elatiki's version would involve him standing behind his restaurant's counter, being approached by one customer after another who can't understand why he doesn't serve gyros or biryani.
True, the tiny Central Avenue café looks nothing like romantic notions of the ancient Berber city with its striking adobe architecture, towering palm trees, and vibrant marketplace. In fact, Minneapolis's little bit of Morocco looks more like a McDonald's, with its squint-inducing florescent lights and red plastic ketchup bottles on the tables.
The dining room looks largely the same as it did when it operated as Pak Zam Zam, the delicious but short-lived Pakistani eatery: square, spare, and utilitarian. The same odd electrical cables still dangle from one corner of the ceiling, and the ambient soundtrack typically consists of an Al Jazeera broadcast or the mechanical hum of a refrigerated glass case containing bottled Cokes, Orangina, and Perrier.
Elatiki, who formerly ran a catering company, made just a few cosmetic changes to the space, mostly painting the walls—adding a mural on the building's exterior—and putting up a few pieces of art, including a pretty photograph of a woman with her face obscured by a scarf. Elatiki's most noteworthy improvement was the addition of a few outdoor chairs and tables, where he and his friends sometimes gather when business is slow, drinking coffee or occasionally speaking African French into a cellphone.
Particularly since the recent closure of Mairin's Table, which had long been the main source of Moroccan fare in the Twin Cities, northwest Africa's cuisine has been largely underrepresented, limited to the occasional dish popping up here and there at places like Sameh Wadi's Saffron or David Fhima's Faces and Zahtar restaurants. By comparison, Elatiki's fare is more casual and homey, prepared with the assistance of just a few employees, including one who shares his Moroccan heritage. In the first iteration of his menu, Elatiki hedged his bets and offered a cheeseburger next to the kebabs and kefta. Fortunately, the dish has since been deemed unnecessary and was crossed off the list with a pen.
All meals at Marrakech should start with mint tea, served in plump, periwinkle-colored pots. Moroccans drink the stuff several times a day, in the manner of Americans with Diet Coke addictions, and small glass tumblers of the stuff tend to pile up on the restaurant's tabletops. For another cold-weather warm-up, Marrakech serves a soup called harira that might be considered Moroccan minestrone: a viscous broth of tomatoes and beef stock with lentils, chickpeas, tiny noodles, and a slow-burning heat that's well-suited to soothing a stuffy nose or sore throat.
Moroccan fare is known for its liberal use of spice and sweet-savory pairings, and a few Marrakech dishes add raisins or prunes to stewed meat, for example, or combine chopped romaine with canned mandarin oranges and cinnamon in a fresh-tasting salad. The bistella is a lasagna-like stack of chicken cooked with saffron, ginger, cilantro, and ground almonds layered between phyllo dough and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. When I tried it, the dish came out a little dry, and the sugar clumps tended to overwhelm, but it was, nonetheless, an interesting flavor combination.
The tagine may be Morocco's best-known dish, a medley of spiced meats and vegetables slowly simmered in a shallow pot with a cone-shaped lid. Marrakech's lemon chicken tagine combined what appeared to be a good half a bird, cooked on the bone until tender, in a tomato-laced sauce with potatoes and green olives. I thought the dish could have used more lemon—I prefer the tagines I've had cooked by Fhima and Wadi, which tend to be brighter and more robustly spiced—but it was plentiful and comforting. The classic kefta tagine, which consists of Moroccan-style meatballs cooked with eggs in a cumin-laced tomato sauce, is just as good and might be equally welcome at breakfast as dinner.
Couscous is another Moroccan staple, and the stuff served at Marrakech is characteristically fluffy and buttery. The vegetarian couscous plate—a pile of the soft, golden granules topped with hunks of sweet carrot, squash, chickpeas, and golden raisins—is mildly spiced but has a simple charm. All these dishes are generously portioned and accompanied by sides of a disc-shaped bread called harsha that looks something like a topping-less focaccia, and a spiced tomato-eggplant puree called zaalouk, a relative of baba ghanoush, that can be eaten bite-for-bite with the entrees.
Some who wander into Marrakech may be disappointed not to find Greek or Indian fare, but I think they'd be converted to Moroccan cuisine if they sampled nothing more than one of the flatbreads that sit stacked on the counter, covered with plastic wrap. The bread is called msaman, noted by a small, hand-lettered sign, and it's admittedly rather lifeless at room temperature. But warm the stuff up and it's as addictive as fry bread. The exterior layers are flaky and crisp; the interior ones have the pleasantly chewy texture of a fresh pasta noodle. It's greasy in a good way, like a flattened croissant—but don't confuse it with anything French.
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