Here's Cooking at You
I've lately found myself insisting, to whomever will listen, that when it comes to dining in ethnic restaurants I'm no nitpicking stickler for authenticity; I simply wonder why those who serve watered-down, clownlike mockeries of such cuisines even bother at all. When those who will listen happen to be the same people who actually have dined out with me, they inevitably bring up instances to the contrary. One such couple reminded me of a visit to a Moroccan restaurant that opened, and quickly closed, on Washington Avenue last year, the one whose chalkboard easel outside promised not just couscous but spaghetti marinara and steak frites. I'll admit I did exclaim, "What, no sushi?" but maintain that had they just tried a little harder, like maybe changed the previous tenant's (the Italian restaurant Margutta) décor, I wouldn't have reacted as sarcastically. As proof of my reasonableness regarding these matters, I hereby cite the following praise for Moroccan Nights.
Owner Olga Knool, originally from Casablanca, has put considerable effort into re-creating as real a Moroccan dining experience as can be expected from a modest 70-seat eatery in Surfside. As soon as you pass through the entranceway, you're transported into a cloistered world seemingly continents apart from the goings on just beyond the storefront window. The intimate design charms with red carpets handmade in Rabat (Morocco's capital), star lights also imported from that nation, walls covered in rich blue- and burgundy-color fabrics, exotic brass knickknacks, and banquettes along each wall. The ambiance is unique to these parts, and relaxing, too, unless you're stuck on one of the uncomfortable cylindrical beanbags called "poofs," which provide seating around the perimeter of the tables for those not quick enough to grab the banquettes. Don't fret --manager David Levy, another Moroccan native, will offer a chair to those visibly spooked by the poof. He might also ask if you'd like some sangría, fantastically spiked with vodka, cinnamon, and apples, but won't mention that it costs eight dollars per glass.
A plate of green and black olives and a brass tibka of homemade, baked-on-stone, anise-flavor bread kept us sated while we perused the menu, a compilation of Morocco's most popular dishes. We kicked things off with harira ($4.95), a traditional lentil-base soup with chickpeas and lamb that wasn't bad, but lacked the aromatics of others I've had. Don't confuse harira with harissa, which is a purée made by grinding together small red peppers, cayenne, garlic, coriander, cumin, mint, and oil. We sampled it as one of six scintillating appetizers in the Moroccan Nights salad ($9.95), the components of which change daily. Ours included baba ghannouj, vinegar-based cucumber salad, eggplant with tomato, carrots with lemon and parsley, and beet slices slathered in enough chopped garlic to feed a small Italian village.
Another starter, bastilla ("little pie"), is prepared by arranging layers of phyllo dough in a round, buttered mold and filling with chicken, seafood, or vegetables. The dough is then wrapped over the top of the dish, glazed, and, in the old days, cooked over hot coals; at Moroccan Nights they use an oven. Seafood bastilla ($5.95), looking like a small wheel of baked Brie, was stuffed with lemon and wine-doused salmon, and possessed a perfectly crisp crust. Same fine crust around the chicken bastilla ($5.95), but this time dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, the interior flavored with almonds, raisins, and caramelized onions. The sugar/poultry combo, which I'm guessing is Turkish-inspired, takes getting used to -- about two bites, at which point the palate adjusts and enjoys. My Moroccan dining companion was more impressed with this dish than with any other.
He wasn't as thrilled with the couscous, the steamed, hard wheat semolina specialty that in his homeland gets shaped into small balls and eaten with the fingers, a custom considered symbolic of brotherhood (sorry, sisters). In country villages couscous is simply flavored with a type of rancid butter called "smeun," but, not being a stickler, I think things like these are best left off American menus. Besides couscous tfaia, with onions, raisins, and cinnamon, is more than obscure enough for our tastes. More common couscous bases include chicken, beef, vegetables, and lamb ($15.95-$18.95), the last containing plenty of chickpeas, some zucchini and squash, a large wedge each of carrot and celery, and tender, deliciously muttony cuts from the good old shoulder. Moroccan fare is less spicy than that of neighboring Algeria or Tunisia (couscous is the national dish of all three nations), but the small semolina grains, though imbued with a pleasant lamb taste, were too timidly seasoned.
Brochettes are, along with couscous, the biggest sellers at Moroccan Nights. (When it comes to food, familiarity breeds temptation, not contempt.) A pair of chicken, fish, lamb, or kefta (fat, cigar-shaped patties of minced and generously spiced beef) kebab are the choices, served with a third skewer of grilled vegetables, and scrumptious cumin/cinnamon rice flecked with raisins and toasted almonds ($15.95).
Tagine refers both to a glazed-earthenware dish with tight-fitting conical lid, and to the ragoutlike specialties of poultry, lamb, or fish that get slowly stewed within: Cornish hen with almonds, salmon with artichokes, lamb with prunes, and chicken with cured lemon, which was juicy and redolent with garlic and citrus, though the serving was stingy -- one medium-size leg with thigh attached. No vegetables, either, but about fifteen colossal green olives.
Service was attentive on one visit, less so on another, but always cordial. The waiters certainly pour tea better than anyone else, the silver pot held high in the air, the steamy liquid falling in a skinny stream smack into little glasses held on a tray below. The tea, made from fresh mint leaves, was sugary; desserts were sweet in a honey-laden, baklava-type way. If that's not your preferred style of pastry, a plate of fresh oranges with cinnamon and sugar ($6.95) should do.
Tea-pouring has its dramatic value, but the main entertainment is belly dancing, 25-minute shows beginning nightly between 9:00 and 10:00. To be honest the notion of a flabby belly oscillating over my couscous has never had the effect of whetting my appetite, but while the dancers change from night to night, some no doubt better than others, the ones we caught were entertaining in an Americanized, girl-next-door sort of way. Authentic? Probably not, but Moroccan Nights provides a uniquely satisfying dining experience and has maintained integrity while translating its foreign cuisine for Miamian tastes. That's as much as anyone should ask for.
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