This says volumes about the way geography is taught in the United States: I took five people with me — on different nights — to the Marrakech Café in Westport, and none of them knew exactly where Morocco was located. Two of them insisted that it was near India and Pakistan. One of my dining companions asked the restaurant's owner, Noure Kamal, if the country shared a border with France.
It does not, of course. Morocco is on the African continent, with coastlines facing both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. France did occupy the country from the end of the 19th century until the 1950s, and both it and Spain influenced Morocco's culinary culture. That's evident by the kinds of dishes served at the eight-month-old Marrakech Café: gratin casseroles and spicy sausages and an occasional dinner special that Kamal (who runs the restaurant with his brother, Amine) wants Kansas Citians to love: a festive pastry called bastilla, a dish traditionally prepared with pigeons.
The locals here aren't so keen on pigeon pie, so Kamal's crusted creation is made with chicken and vegetables and baked with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. But for the American palate, it's too sweet to enjoy as an entrée and not quite sweet enough for a dessert.
Kamal is determined to show this town that Moroccan cuisine is strongly influenced by Mediterranean cooking traditions, but he doesn't serve hummus or pita or, God forbid, gyro sandwiches. Bread is an important component of his menu, but instead of the unleavened pita found in local Arabic restaurants, Kamal offers baskets of khobz, a yeastier, puffier counterpart that's perfect for soaking up the sauces in his flavorful tajines. "I don't serve rice with my tajines," he says. "That's not how we eat them in Morocco."
And in the Marrakech Café, it's easy to give in to the romance of a country that has inspired great poets and several classic American movies: Morocco with Marlene Dietrich, Tangier with Maria Montez and Sabu, and Casablanca. The Kamal brothers hired local artist Katie Carter to paint Byzantine-style murals in the dining room. And in a nod to Continental dining customs of another age, they've set the tables with crisp linens and fresh roses in glass vases.
The most dramatic change to this storefront space — it was once Tivoli Video before becoming a series of failed restaurants — has been in regard to the aromatic curse from the shop next door. The fragrance of acrid mothballs wafting from the Aladdin Oriental Rug Gallery effectively drove customers away from the previous tenant, Taqueria Bautista. Noure Kamal has led a virtual jihad against the stink, including different venting, air purifiers, and a proposed lease agreement to soon take over part of the carpet shop in order to build out a small retail space to sell Moroccan gift items.
Now that I've dined in the Marrakech Café a few times, I can report that there's still a pungent whiff of camphor at the entrance, but it's easily forgotten once you're actually seated in the brown and gold dining room. I'd still request a table closer to the kitchen, where the aroma of cooking spices is much more alluring.
And it's those seductive spices — cilantro, mint, garlic, cinnamon, cumin — that make this extraordinary cuisine so distinctive. Noure Kamal, who is both manager and chef, uses a delicate hand when seasoning his dishes, but you've never tasted beef quite as succulent and sensually seasoned as his fragrant tajine: slow-simmered for hours in saffron butter, onion, ginger, cinnamon and garlic with prunes and apricots. It's one of the most satisfying beef dishes I've had in a long time. A traditional Moroccan stew, served in a domed clay pot, is prepared differently, depending on the meat. The chicken tajine here is simmered in saffron, olive oil, ginger and house-pickled lemon.