News & Politics

May 2006 Taste of Morocco

Taste of Morocco has a belly dancer for every night of the week.

Restaurants with belly dancers are kissing cousins to restaurants with views. They raise suspicions: Will the food on the plate be as compelling as the drama on the dance floor or the vista out the window?

Taste of Morocco has a belly dancer for every night of the week. But there's also enough soulful cooking to make even the lunch hour, when there are no undulating bodies about, worth the trip.

Located on the Colesville Road end of City Place in Silver Spring, this offspring of the Clarendon original is not the sort of place you'd expect to find in a downtown mall. Cross the threshold and you leave behind teenagers yakking into their cell phones and enter a world as enigmatic as a Paul Bowles novel.

Here are walls stenciled to mimic Moroccan mosaics, banquettes plush with pillows in ornate golds and maroons, and a table layout that hugs the edges of the room to make way for the swirl of scarves to come.

Settle in with a platter of cold salads and a glass of Algerian wine. Silky smooth hummus is luxuriant with tahini. Eggplant has a smoky, perfumey depth that develops slowly because it's served a mite too cold. A dish of cubed carrots counters with a vinegary tang and a whiff of spice. Olives in a pool of oil flecked with harissa–the fiery Moroccan condiment made with chilies, garlic, cumin, and coriander–are the sort of thing you eat compulsively before noticing they're all gone.

These strong, bright flavors are a fine prelude to a classic Moroccan bestilla. American sensibilities being delicate, the traditional pigeon pie is typically made with chicken in this country. The puffy, hubcap-size round of pastry filled with cinnamon, sugar, almonds, onion, and bits of chicken is a mouthful of crunch and crumble, ideal for sharing. Unless you have a sweet tooth, ask the kitchen to go easy on the powdered sugar on top.

Tagines and couscous are other mainstays of the Moroccan table. Here again that sweet-savory push-pull is woven through dish after dish like the silky woolen thread of a Berber rug. Lamb tagine achieves a wonderful balance–the strong flavor of the meat mellowed with dried prunes and black-and-white sesame seeds for a crunchy finish. Also delicious is t'faya, couscous with caramelized onion and raisins and a choice of meat, chicken, or vegetables or–even better–all three.

An intense chicken tagine, sour with preserved lemons and pungent with green olives, delivers seduction of a different sort. There is no hint of sweetness here, making it an ideal foil for other dishes.

Less familiar stunners include kefta, which gives new meaning to the term "spicy meatball," its tiny spheres of ground lamb and beef glazed with a thick, mahogany-hued brew of tomato and fiery harissa. They may well be the most addictive thing at the table. Filet of red snapper is baked under a complex harissa-based sauce studded with preserved lemons, olives, and carrots. The overall effect is so satisfying it hardly seems to matter that the fish is overcooked.

I might wish for better, more distinctive bread, and service seesaws between a bit pushy (such as nudges to order larger portions) and lax (the candles in beautiful Byzantine holders on the tables are unlit until you ask). But these are quibbles.

And they're easily forgotten under the spell of the belly dancer. Barefoot in sequins and chiffon, balancing a tray of lit candles on her head as she gyrates to Moroccan pop, she is riveting. She may be a reason to stop in, but she's not the only one.