Moroccan foods from a palace in Fez. Beneath the conical lids of traditional tajines, sauces brew for hours
AS we stepped through the Islamic archway into the Al Fassia restaurant here, the words of New York food writer Paula Wolfert (who has studied Moroccan cooking for years) echoed in our minds: ``It is nearly impossible to find a restaurant that serves even halfway decent Moroccan food.'' Something told us, however, that we had stumbled upon her definition of the impossible.
We had found the cuisine of Morocco, preserved in the kitchens of a palace.
The Palais Jamais Hotel, just inside the 9th-century ramparts of the oldest medina in Africa, is a modern legacy of the Moroccan dynasties in which cooking reached its summit of perfection. And this restaurant in its interior reaches draws on Fez's historic role as imperial city, the oldest of the great gastronomic centers of Morocco.
Seated on low-lying divans, we listened to live music while studying a menu shaped like a tajine, the ubiquitous special earthenware bowl of this cuisine -- as attentive waiters in brocaded seroul (baggy Islamic trousers), jabadors (jackets), and pointed slippers whisked trays of covered ceramic dishes to and fro.
With visions of ``Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom'' dancing in our heads, who dared lift these exotic, terracotta lids?
Beneath the tajine's conical top, many of the traditional Moroccan fish and meat courses -- the famous couscous among them -- are boiled slowly with every kind of vegetable, fruit, nut, and spice.
Before I pondered the full list of main courses, I decided to choose an appetizer quickly -- something safe and eclectic enough to offer a cross-section of Moroccan fare.
Since amazing salads are supposedly one special delight of Moroccan cuisine, ``choix de salades'' (choice of salads) turned out to be just the ticket: no less than seven separate plates with everything from liver, olives, tomato, and mint to ratatouille in tart, lipsmacking vinegar and lemon dressings. And there was one fist-size, gelatinous delicacy I couldn't quite place from the limited vocabulary of flavors in my still modestly accomplished palate.
``That's lamb's brain,'' grinned our young Islamic waiter, Jikni Mostafa, who was used to watching American tourists turn pale at his description of this traditional Moroccan appetizer.
My wife's appetizer was the traditional Ramadan breakfast soup, harira. Our waiter described it as very much like the Italian minestrone. It was, except for a more peppery and lemony taste; it was also rich with vegetables and meat and thickened with tedouira -- a mixture of yeast or flour and water.
Considering a main course, I remembered that for years I'd been told that ``real'' Moroccan couscous -- cooked with wheat semolina and topped with veal, chicken, lamb, vegetables, and highly seasoned sauce -- was far different from couscous prepared in the United States. But my wife chose that to see how it's done in the country of its origin. So I looked for something equally traditional. It turned out to be mechoui (roast lamb) kebab, on a bed of rice with almonds and raisins the size of black olives.
While we were waiting, our waiter brought multilayered serving trays filled with pastry appetizers. Some were tiny cinnamon and sugar pies with rice called briouates; those with meat were called belkefta. We tried both and were surprised that the sugar topping actually worked well with both rice and meat.
I soon began to realize that when dining in such a monumental setting, only half of the experience is gastronomic. The other half is atmosphere.
A seven-piece ensemble playing tambourines, violins, recorders, and hand drums greets the diner. This is music for belly dancers, without the dancers. At your table you are surrounded by brightly colored, brocaded cushions. A veiled woman sprinkles your hands with perfumed water from a silver shaker called a mracha.
The ornate Islamic doorways and plasterwork compete mightily for your attention. Of pure Moorish architecture, the palace was designed in 1896 as a pleasure pavilion -- ``for rest, for escape, for pleasure to the eyes and peace to the soul.''
Unlike the architecture in typical Moroccan houses, the architecture here is wholly turned outward onto an enclosed courtyard. Windows open wide to terraced gardens, tinkling fountains, and the mysterious townscape of Fez.
Finally, after all the waiting and mystical musical ambiance, the tajines arrived, each holding enough to feed three people. It was obvious that this was not a delicate dish, but more a hearty stew.
Highly aromatic and flavored heavily with paprika and cumin, all manner of couscous was developed to feed men who had spent a day in hard physical labor and travelers riding camelback across desert. It has since become the Moroccan national dish.
Digging in, the best we could do was make a dent. The couscous was both a sweet and savory experience -- but heavy in oil, which Moroccans say they use to help the ingredients properly bind.
There are two kinds of grain available here -- mhammsa (large grain), and seffa (small grain), neither obtainable in the US. Our order came with the mhammsa. Wonderfully crisp and light -- compared to grains at other restaurants we'd been to from Tangier to Marrakech, where it was swimming in grease -- the couscous grain was submerged under carrots, raisins, chicken, lamb, and garbanzo beans.
The waiter said all the couscous and tajine dishes vary with whatever vegetables and fruits -- from quinces (small apples) to dates -- are available.
My brochette came on a bed of rice, accompanied with two sauces: One was a gravy-like vegetable sauce, and the other was a hot sauce that would set your mouth on fire. The meat was bathed in smen, butter that is stored in airtight jugs for years, and brought out -- in domestic use -- on rare occasions as a delicacy. I found the spicy meat pungently powerful, and the sauce heavy.
My opinion could have been altered as the result of too many appetizers, of course. And our waiter told us to save room for the ``salade d'oranges `a la cannelle,'' -- orange slices with sugar and cinnamon -- the traditional dessert.
As if all this weren't enough, dinner is traditionally finished with tea `a la mente, hot mint tea served in tall glasses and brimming with fragrant mint leaves.
Throughout the evening we had been introduced to what Ms. Wolfert calls the ``philosophy of abundance'' in Morocco -- ``an embarrassment of riches, total satisfaction, abundance as an end in itself and as a point of pride for the host.'' Food, service, attitude, and ambiance were all suffused with hospitality.
When we looked up again, we noticed the restaurant was practically empty, and the music had stopped. The woman reappeared, and for a second time doused our hands in orange-blossom water.