On a late-summer Friday night lit by a radiant blue moon (it literally was), we decided to venture to the H street NE neighborhood to savor the cooking of a new restaurant. It had been many moons (pun intended) since I ventured to this part of town ever since an old friend lived there in the early 90′s. Strolling down its main drag with the full moon getting everyone’s attention and spurring us to enjoy a warm night during the lingering remnants of summer, I was quite taken aback by the area’s development and growth including the influx of diversity in a historically black neighborhood that was enjoying the burgeoning businesses on the strip. One such place is Souk Moroccan Restaurant.
When we arrived at our destination, the restaurant was undergoing some renovations in the main dining room, making its foyer cramped with filled tables. We were invited by the waiters to spend our waiting time at a Hookah Bar a couple of doors away. When the table became available, we squeezed into our table and quickly perused the menu. The offerings are the familiar and traditional Moroccan dishes that I have encountered in other eateries. The menu is divided into Cold Tapas, Hot Tapas, Signature Moroccan Specialties, Salads, and Entrées.
Our first choice to start the meal off was a combination of cold tapas listed under the Entrée section – Vegetarian Platter. The dish arrived filled with a combination of Zaalouk, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, traditional Moroccan spinach, and carrot salad. The Zaalouk consisted of roasted eggplant, garlic and tomatoes that enticed us with its savoriness, well-balanced flavors, and silky smooth texture along with a good hit of smokiness, and the accompanying pita slices made the perfect scooping vehicle for the dip. The carrots slices were still sweet and perfectly cooked with a tinge of lemon acidity. I could not get enough of the stuffed grape leaves that tasted fresh and not too acidic like in other places. The hummus was not too dense, smooth, and rich with a hint of garlic and tahini sauce. The center of the plate was occupied by a large chickpea falafel that was well-seasoned, light, and crispy from the frying. And the spinach was really tasty with a slight hint of fragrant dried spices, perhaps cumin. I would suggest to order this dish as the perfect starter even though it is listed under the entrée section. As a vegetarian offering, it makes a perfect meatless dish as well.
A favorite among the traditional Moroccan dishes is Chicken with Preserved Lemons, and we decided to order this restaurant’s rendition. The dish arrived with a thigh and drumstick that has been cooked with caramelized onions, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, and preserved lemons. The sauce was very tasty but it lacked the preserved lemon flavor that I was looking forward to in this dish. The chicken could have done with longer time on the stove/tagine for it was not quite fall-off-the-bone yet. However, the side of saffron rice blew us away. It was light, very savory, and heady from the saffron threads that added a beautiful yellow tinge as well as its slight flowery fragrance. This side indeed transported us to the sunny fields of North Africa with its wonderful flavors and perfume.
Our next choice was Apricot Lamb Tagine. A lamb shank was marinated overnight with a saffron, ginger and cinnamon sauce, and slow-cooked with a few dried apricots. When it arrived at our table, the meat was moist and literally fork tender, indicating its lengthy cooking on a low heat in a tagine earthen pot. The sauce was complex and very tasty, with a hint of sweetness from the softened apricots. While I was tasting the dish, I detected a certain je ne se quoi as the backnote in the sauce. After some mulling over it, I honed on Orange Blossom Water that I have tasted in Middle Eastern pastry. Upon checking this with the kitchen, my guesswork was confirmed – what a brilliant addition to this flavor profile! This dish was not only tasty but it also evoked a exoticness that woke up a sense of culinary wanderlust. Truly memorable.
We wanted to try the place’s version of a traditional favorite – Chicken Bastilla. However, the kitchen was out of it and we resorted to the Grilled Kafta. Two kebabs arrived on our table which were made from ground beef. It was well-seasoned with a strong hint of chili and other dry fragrant spices. The pool of light tomato sauce provided a slightly sweet and acidic flavor to these pieces of grilled beef – I felt that the other Tzatziki sauce did not contribute much to the dish which remained mostly untouched. The slices of grilled vegetables had the same smoky notes as the Kaftas themselves after having spent the same amount of time as its meat partner on the hot grill. A mound of that saffron rice rounded off the dish which we continuously could not get enough of.
Souk has a fairly short menu filled with traditional Moroccan dishes and a smattering of other Mediterranean dishes. The dishes that we savored were cooked with care and a deft hand that understands flavors of this North African cuisine. The highlights worth tasting are the cold dishes in the Vegetarian Platter, that wonderful tender and savory lamb shank, the spicy and smoky grilled beef kafta, and the fluffy saffron rice that titillated the senses. With such wonderful cooking, you may be tempted to complete this meal with a visit to Sahra Lounge a couple of doors down to smoke a hookah as dessert since both locales are run by the same owner. Morocco meets H Street NE – who would have thought of that!