Rouge's secret garden dining terrace.
Rouge's secret garden dining terrace.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson

At Rouge, France and Morocco Come Together in the Hands of an Accidental Chef

Nabil Hach Al-luch bought the restaurant across from the Normandy Isle fountain more than a decade ago but never planned to be a chef. Then, in 2012, the sole cook at his place, Rouge (908 71st St., Miami Beach; 305-720-9125), announced he was leaving for vacation the next day.

"I offered to pay for his vacation, to delay it, but he refused," says the 46-year-old, Moroccan-born Al-luch. "I said, 'You're going to force me into the kitchen, and if I'm able to do it, you won't have a job when you get back.'?"

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Four years later, the cook is gone and Al-luch is still in the kitchen. The lanky Al-luch emerges every so often to greet guests, pull himself an espresso, and smoke a cigarette.

In the beginning, things were hectic, but he had learned his craft in a cramped apartment in the projects on the outskirts of Paris. There, his mother would coax chicken, rabbit, and lamb into the savory-sweet stews called tagines for her four children. As Al-luch entered his teenage years, he began eating at the panoply of bistros that fill the streets of Paris.

Rouge's quail stuffed with merguez.
Rouge's quail stuffed with merguez.
Photo by Zachary Fagenson

He knew he wanted to do Moroccan food. But he also knew the painstaking preparations required would be nearly impossible to execute in his cramped space. "I figured I could present Moroccan flavors very well and blend them with some French ingredients and techniques," he recalls.

These days, he fills delicate quail ($30.95) with an aggressively spiced homemade version of the North African lamb sausage merguez. Then he crisps the minuscule birds and places them in a fragrant apricot sauce. For another dish, he showers fleshy branzino ($34.95) in a North African array of spices called ras el hanout and then folds them in parchment paper and bakes them. It's a classic French technique called en papillote that in this case produces a distinct flavor that's a product of the pungent combination of cardamom, cumin, clove, ginger, coriander, paprika, fenugreek, and turmeric. "It's not butter and thyme that poofs out when you open it up; it's an explosion of perfume," he says.

The blending of North African and French cuisines is nothing new. France ruled much of North Africa, often brutally, for nearly a century, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. The food served at Rouge is a silver lining in this dark cloud of history.

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