Western women are not restricted but are certainly discouraged from touring the labyrinth that is Tangiers. Their bare limbs and naked faces upset both the male and female populations; their activities, such as dining in public, make them a threat. Neither are male tourists looked on with much favor except by the government, which hopes to encourage commerce between Morocco and Western markets. For this reason, government-sponsored guides solicit business from the Spanish ferries, which commute daily between Algeciras and the regal North African coastline.
Various guidebooks insist that these tour operators are just that -- operators. They advise distrust, and a careful guarding of your money. But we found our hired host, Mahjid, to be honest, friendly, and fluent in American slang. He led us skillfully through the hilly cobbled streets, lined with one-room residences like rabbit warrens. He admired with us the panorama from the Casbah: the warm cobalt of the Mediterranean melding with the cool green of the Atlantic. He lingered beside us in the Berber medina, where sheeps' heads line the stalls, an insomniac's abacus to nightmares.
He also brought us to his favorite cafe. We dined on unleavened Arab bread paddled from the mortar oven like a pizza, fragrant lamb shish kebab, and couscous poulet -- simple grilled chicken atop a pile of tiny, dry semolina, a starch as common in Morocco as rice is in Asia. For dessert a cloying mint tea sufficed, steeped in a glass, the herbal fronds waving like the hair of mermaids.
Still, for all the pleasantries extended us, and Mahjid's genuine interest in our well-being (as well as his fee), I felt uncomfortable. Discounting American-supervised construction sites, never have my legs been examined with such interest, and such horror. In a city where women are required to wear high-necked, long-sleeved robes on the glimmering beaches in lieu of bathing suits, a tank top and shorts are not appreciated. My handling of such tools as currency and a camera were also cause for native concern, especially to the nomadic Berbers, who believed I would capture their souls along with their faces. The return trip to Spain was simultaneously a cause for regret, and a relief.
So I might understand why Moshe Zur, owner of the five-month-old Kosher/Moroccan Cafe Couscous, may not want to visit the country whose cuisine he serves nightly. An Israeli, his nationality in that largely Arab nation might provoke as strong a reaction as an unveiled woman watching a soccer match.
I can also understand his desire to tempt Miami's Glatt Kosher community with more exotic fare than deli. Moroccan is a cuisine that adapts well to the restrictions of separating meat from dairy, for instance, or eating only fish that have both fins and scales. In Morocco shellfish is a luxury reserved for fine dining, and is rarely included on the everyday menu. And meat, especially lamb and mutton, seems the reliable favorite over dairy-rich meals.
In addition, the Mediterranean preparations Cafe Couscous offers aren't so far removed from Israeli cuisine. The waitstaff promotes the combination platter for two, a smorgasboard of Middle Eastern salads served finger-bowl style (like rjistafel, an Indonesian feast consisting of many courses of very small portions). At least two other tables within our hearing range were *persuaded /convinced/ to taste this cumin cornucopia, the overwhelming spice in the camonia (carrot) and matbocha (tomato and peppers) salads. Tahini -- roasted sesame paste -- was also a dominant appetizer figure, mixed with minced chick peas to create a smooth hummus, and crushed eggplant for my favorite baba ghannouj. Perennial falafel, often bland, at Couscous is a fresh prep of chickpeas fried like latkes, and the final ingredient to this salad bar. We made these seasoned patties into finger sandwiches on thick, fresh pita, far from watercress and a thin smear of butter, but just as delicate in their own way.
What I can't understand is the haphazrd itinerary of this journey to North Africa. Known in the area for his other inventive Kosher alternative, Yo Si Peking, Zur in this same Kane Concourse location had previously operated King Solomon, a dairy-free trip to the Continent, and more recently the popular Taste of Szechuan. Certainly the neighborhood is appreciative of this latest innovation, lining up as they do for the privilege of dining in the Moroccan tent Zur has erected in a corner. But aside from the circus silk, several I-Dream-of-Jeannie pillows scattered in the foyer, and the funereal swatches clambering across the walls as if they were draping mirrors, no other attempt has been made to redecorate. Lacquered and Oriental-printed tables and chairs linger from the Szechuan days, with no plans to replace them. Branches heavy with cloth flowers blossom along the walls, and mere steps into the room, Morocco is abandoned for China.
It is also my assumptive belief that a responsibility rests with the owner of a restaurant to be intimately familiar with the cuisine he serves. Many chefs and owners train for years in a single genre, all in anticipation of one day opening an eatery. Zur, it seems, made an impulsive decision to drastically switch directions. His research, which in the few brief months between the departure of Taste of Szechuan and the arrival of Cafe Couscous, included an investigative visit to Epcot Center.
Yet his knowledge seems complete if perfunctory; the menu is a decent effort in the median East. Traditional Moroccan dishes, such as brochette of chicken with a raisin and almond rice, and tajine, a slow-cooked stew, are offered. As with couscous, touajen are limited only by the imagination of the cook. Olives, artichokes, and dried fruits are among the ingredients in a standard tajine, along with meat or poultry. At Couscous every tajine comes up a sweet lamb, regardless of the order. Complemented by the generous, sunny nature of prunes, chunks of lamb meant to be eaten with the fingers are bunched over two scoops of raisins and rice.
And unlike Yo Si Peking, whose eggrolls lack the true flavors afforded them by pork and shellfish, and whose entrees as an entirety rely solely on garlic for zip, Cafe Couscous holds an appeal for the general public. Mediocre Chinese food, Kosher or not, is an accessibility in this city. Moroccan and Mediterranean foods are luxuries, even when consumed in the ephemeral charm of a misguided renovation that reminds you of a motley crew of cultures.
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Does a question of authenticity remain? Chicken bstila is sold as an appetizer of minced poultry and onions baked in a crust. A true bstila however, calls for pigeon and is an enormously complicated recipe. In Morocco, this dish resembles a large pastry, the epidermal layers (similar to phyllo dough) numbering 104 having been thrown down one at a time onto a sizzling griddle. Can a man whose fingers have dipped into many different pies make this one to order?
The answer is no, nor should we expect it of him. In Morocco, a chief cook and her assistants take twelve hours to prepare bstila. In a Glatt Kosher kitchen, improvisations -- and substitutions -- naturally occur. Perhaps this is why my garden vegetable couscous looked and tasted not like the evocative mixture of grains and spices I had anticipated, but like my mother's comforting chicken soup, topped as it was by the root vegetables she uses to flavor it. Moistened by a chicken and chick pea broth, it's a dish I can call home, and it's cheaper than a flight to New Jersey. Or for that matter, a ferry to Morocco.
Cafe Couscous 1111 Kane Concourse, Bay Harbor Islands, 864-0141. Dinner Sunday -- Thursday from 4:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. Saturday from sundown to 11:00 p.m. Closed Friday.
Sweet lamb tajine $14.95
Chicken bstila $4.95
Garden vegetable couscous $8.95
Baba ghannouj $3.95