Exploring the food of Marrakech was one of our biggest anticipations. Over the years, we’ve only tried a few Moroccan restaurants. We always found generous portions of long-cooked meats and vegetables, semolina, and often dried fruits. Coucous, tajine and tanjia. (Here’s a rundown of popular Moroccan dishes.) Nothing very spicy. But that was in restaurants far from Marrakech. Our taste buds were ready for new sensations from an epicenter of Moroccan food!
One thing that the dinner restaurants we visited had in common was gorgeous ambiance and good-natured service. Four examples:
On the night of our arrival in the riad, we asked for recommendations for a good restaurant nearby. Without hesitation Yassine and another staff member said, “Café Arabe.” An ornate portal announced the restaurant.
The host seated us in a dining room just off a courtyard, full of Moroccan motifs.
Our first meal in Marrakech had to be tajine and tanjia.
Tajine Berbère: beef, vegetables. It arrived at the table beneath the traditional ceramic cone-shaped top. Simple, fresh but bland flavors.
Tanjia de boeuf: beef, garlic, candied lemon, cumin, saffron. This dish arrives at the table in a steaming clay put. The server dramatically poured the meat stew into the waiting ceramic plate. More panache, however, than succulence.
Many reviewers celebrate Al Fassia as the best traditional-cuisine restaurant in Marrakech. In addition, the mission of the founders of the restaurant is to train and empower women. 100% of the staff are women. We pinned hopes on Al Fassia to share with us delicious traditional food.
We found a handsome modern set of dining rooms, divided by a narrow glazed green garden. Some of our greeters and servers were warm and attentive; some seemed distracted and bored. Still, we were here for the food.
A traditional starter is briouates, which are fried pastries stuffed with meats, cheeses or vegetables. They’re fried; they’re good!
From our previous meals of tajines, we had concluded that, as much as we love beef and lamb, chicken benefits the most from the slow cooking of the tajine. Our experiences to this point had not been remarkable; we kept tasting long-cooked soft vegetables and mute meats. We deduced that we had not focused enough on choices with dried fruit and silky textures. So we chose a chicken tajine with caramelized onions and raisins. The onions were rich and delicious, the raisins had melted into the thick sauce, and the chicken was moist. The flavors and textures made comfort food. However, each forkful was just like the previous forkful. A cozy one-liner.
Nomad seemed to be on every travel and restaurant reviewer’s list. Two reasons: Open-air roof-top terraces overlooking the spice market, and a fusion of traditional and modern locavore cuisine. From reception, the hostess led us up five flights of stairs that meandered among dining rooms and alcoves. Our table squeezed against a parapet, and we overlooked a lower terrace and the spice market beyond.
Zucchini and feta fritters served with minted yoghurt, and roasted bone marrow with toast, coarse salt and cumin, red onions, capers and preserved lemon, parsley and mint.
By the time we finished our starters, the sun had set and the breeze had turned distinctly colder. In holiday mode, we hadn’t thought that far ahead, so we huddled at the table, deciding we were warmer than we really were. The chilly distraction meant that we forgot to take photos of the main courses. So you will have to imagine: Braised lamb with sweet potato, red onion, mushroom, spinach, orange zest, ginger, cardamom and star anise; grilled lamb chops served with spiced potatoes, zucchini, cherry tomatoes and home-made harissa. As good as it sounds!
Even though Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country, there are quite a few wine producers. People have made wine in this region since antiquity. During the 1950s, as legacy of the period of French control, Morocco was one of the largest wine exporting countries in the world. Once Morocco gained independence from France in 1956, production plummeted. In the last 30 years, the king has encouraged a rebirth of Moroccan wines.
At each of our dinners, we tried a different bottle of red Moroccan wine. The grapes were mostly Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. We are far from being expert enough to judge more than whether we liked the wine with our meal. We found generally pleasant medium-body wines, sometimes a little bitter.
Our last evening in Marrakech followed a day-long tour deep into the Atlas Mountains. The tour driver dropped us off at the main plaza in the medina, the Jemaa el-Fnaa. By this time, we knew well our path through the winding streets back to the riad. We aimed to wander around the square, find a simple comfortable restaurant, and then stroll on to the riad. Multi-story restaurants surround Jemaa el-Fnaa. Their terraces are perfect for watching the activity of the market below. After the full day out in the mountains and desert, and anticipating the unknowns of trying to get a flight back to France in the morning, we were clear that a nice bottle of red wine had to go with whatever we found for dinner.
Each restaurant posts its menu at plaza-level, accompanied usually by staff whose job it is to escort you up into the restaurant. At the first one we approached, we found a menu full of traditional Moroccan dishes. But no indication of wine or spirits — this is a Muslim country after all. Asking the staff was easy, “Du vin?” (“Some wine?”) Instant smiles and shaking of heads. Same exchange at the next three restaurants we tried. We would have to find a relatively upscale restaurant, perhaps part of a hotel, to enjoy that bottle of wine.
Mike recalled an elaborate portal not far from our Riad. We had noticed a menu on a stand, as well as photographs of an attractive hotel pool. “Let’s try that.” Turned out to be a wonderful beautiful choice, including the wine! The place is Palais Donab.
We wandered through the portal. We found one gorgeous ornate space after another. Because many tourists and visitors had already fled the city, rushing back to their homes (as we would do the next day), these salons and courtyard were deserted.
We explored the pool courtyard.
A server from the restaurant popped out of a door at the end of an arcade. He welcomed us with smiles, and showed us to a stunningly beautiful dining room. The rich decor combined local motifs on most surfaces with European club furnishings and lighting. What a refuge from the stress of the budding pandemic.
By now, we had lost our faith in finding a luscious tajine or couscous. We went for comfort proteins: A veal steak, and a mixed-grill mountain. And that bottle of red Moroccan wine that was our target.
The service, food and atmosphere took care of us with warmth, and the cost for the meal was stunningly moderate. We checked on room prices online, and found the same notably good prices. We will return to Marrakech once the world reopens; there is much more to explore. And we will relax and dine at the Palais Donab.
Our impression from our too-few dining opportunities: The best tajines, couscous and tanjias that we enjoyed were simple and comforting. We hope that in future visits we will find traditional dishes of more complexity. The true excellence of many of these dining experiences was the ambiance. The joy was the expansive dynamic view, the exuberant ornamentation, and the charming servers. And a nice bottle of red Moroccan wine, of course.