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Marrakesh's appetizers please fans of Middle Eastern cooking

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Bill Livick
May 9, 2013
MADISON
The closure of the popular Middle Eastern restaurant Shish Café last year came as a blow to many, but its Syrian recipes have been replaced by Moroccan fare with the opening of Marrakesh in February.
Owner Youssef Amraoui, former head chef at The Dardanelles on Monroe Street (which closed a few years ago), has done a wonderful job of designing and decorating his new west-side restaurant. It's larger than its predecessor and features two attractive dining rooms.
Notable on both sides are the intricately woven, vibrantly colored Moroccan rugs displayed on walls painted in rich colors.
One room is painted in deep red, orange and yellow with lavish banquettes around the perimeter, while large front windows on the other side are draped in colorful fabric.
A stereo system softly plays Moroccan music in the background, adding to an overall effect of transporting visitors to an exotic locale.
For the most part, the food holds up its end of the promise, particularly the starters. We found that the entrees on the small menu were a bit less inspired during a visit to Marrakesh last Friday night.
Our party of three sampled a trio of appetizers: the traditional Moroccan soup harira, the classic Middle Eastern chickpea treat falafel, and the satisfying spicy red pepper dip mohammara.
With its blend of tomatoes, chickpeas, lentils and hints of coriander and cumin, the soup is superb at just $4 per bowl or $2.50 per cup. The falafel ($6.50) is a fairly standard mix of ground chickpeas and spices that comes with red onion and a yogurt dressing.
However, the mohammara ($7) is the real standout among the appetizers. A blend of walnuts, artichoke hearts, red pepper, garlic and cumin, the mohammara is wonderful with warm pita.
Vegetarians take note: The kitchen's starters are so fine that you easily could make a meal of them and walk away satiated.
The main courses also offer something for nonmeat eaters, and something for nonmeat eaters, and that might be the way to go, because our entrees were a bit of a letdown due to some rather dry meats.
Moroccan cuisine is famous for its use of the tagine-the ceramic or clay cookware with a wide, shallow dish used for both cooking and serving and a distinctive dome-shaped top. The term also refers to the meal that is slow-cooked inside the cooking vessel.
Marrakesh's chicken tagine ($14) is prepared and served with preserved lemon, green peas and olives and served with a side of saffron rice. The flavors are exquisite, but as mentioned, the meat suffered from a dryness that hindered our appreciation.
An order of chicken rafissa ($14)-chicken and lentils served over a bed of shredded pastry-was also brought down from rather dry, stringy meat. We loved the flavor of lentils and the suggestion of ginger and turmeric in the meat, but the long cooking time apparently took a toll on the chicken breast.
Of the entrees we sampled, the beef couscous ($16) offered the most flavor, with a host of succulent vegetables such as butternut squash, cabbage, carrots, onions, chickpeas and tomatoes. The beef was moister than the chicken, which also helped.
The menu lists five desserts. We shared one called Flavor of the Sahara ($4)-a dense bar of dates, nuts, sunflower seeds and rosewater topped with a drizzle of date syrup. It was delicious but so rich that we were glad we had split it three ways.
I thought a cup of mint tea-the national beverage of Morocco-would go nicely with the date bar, but I was disappointed with the flavor. It didn't taste much like the mint tea I remember from a month-long stay in the country years ago.
Service at Marrakesh is very professional, if a tad slow. On our way out we talked with the owner, who made a point of explaining that preparing food in a tagine takes longer than most Americans expect. He said it without prompting, which led us to think he's probably heard complaints about the pace of service.
The restaurant's inviting atmosphere made it a pleasant wait anyway. If the kitchen can do something to retain more moisture in its meat dishes, Marrakesh is certain to become a welcome fixture on the dining scene.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.


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