A few months back, I decided to visit one of the first places that I had written a blog on, hoping to resavor their Moroccan dishes, but to my dismay, the restaurant was closed, and according to the gentleman outside enjoying his cigarette, it had changed ownership as it was preparing to open as another restaurant serving the same North African fare. I was intrigued about the new establishment and the quality of its food on the upcoming menu.

Marrakech RestaurantWell, a friend was going to turn the big Five-O. Not being one for pomp and circumstance, the reluctant one was not going to do anything to celebrate this milestone (What? Seriously?). Coming from a culture where one finds reasons for cause for celebration (including honoring the Winter Solstice), I took it upon myself to arrange a dinner for this fella. Knowing his affinity for Moroccan cuisine, I initially tried to make a reservation at a large venue that has been a local haunt for many years, until I found out that its shelf life had expired and the place was permanently closed, waiting for developers to raze it down and rebuild on that prime property. With few choices left, I corralled a bunch of his friends and we meet at Marrakech, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC.

Walking into the establishment, I noticed nothing had really changed since its former identity as Marrakesh P St. Once everyone, including the celebrant, settled in, we decided to order the $35 8-course dinner. Here we go!

Moroccan Tapenade

Appetizer: Olive Tapenade and Moroccan Bread: This was an awesome start with the moist fluffy bread making the perfect vehicle to sop up the slightly briny olive tapenade made sweet from finely grounded sweet onions, enriched by a layer of olive oil floating on top. I had to remind myself that this was not the first course yet, but I couldn’t refrain from dipping into this bowl constantly – neither could my friends.

Moroccan Soup

First Course: Moroccan House Soup. The bowl came with a broth filled with vermicelli noodles and a certain undistinguishable brown pea, similar to lentils. Most agreed that it was a bit under seasoned and it could have done with a spritz of lemon like how the former management used to serve it. The celebrant loved it though, he being a no-salt kind of guy.

Eggplant, Carrot, Spinach Combo

Second Course: Cooked Vegetable Salads.  A beautiful glass plate arrived like a triptych of three paintings. Each little serving was a true delight and they individually were wrestling for the diner’s attention. The Eggplant was sweet and spicy without a faint of its bitterness. The Carrot salad was spiced by some coriander seeds, lemon juice, and bits of parsley, which complemented the amazing sweetness of this root vegetable. The Spinach salad was mild and devoid of any bitter flavors, made savory with a light spice seasoning that made it homey and soulful.  This was a tantalizing trio indeed.

Chicken Bastilla

Third Course: Chicken Bastilla. This festive dish is a good yardstick of Moroccan restaurant. The phyllo dough was crispy on the outside dusted with some powdered sugar and cinnamon. The moist filling consisted of bits of shredded chicken and almond slivers, spiced with more cinnamon. I quite enjoyed this dish with the savory-sweet flavor combination. However, I could not finish this wedge of pie since it was chockfull of nuts and I was getting a bit full already. Less nuts and it would have been perfect.

Tagine PotsLamb Prune Tagine

Fourth Course: Lamb Tagine. The chunks of lamb were very savory from some spices and seasoning, and they were literally fork tender, which the celebrant raved about. Pieces of prune added a sweetness to the dish along with some fruitiness, while the sesame seeds and shards of toasted almond added some crunchy nuttiness to the dish. Amazingly, there was barely a single ounce of fat in the dish, indicating the quality of meat and the skillful kitchen.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Fifth Course: Chicken Tagine. Pieces of tender chicken have been cooked in the Tagine earthenware along with spices and seasoning to add lots of flavor while retaining the meat juices. Bits of preserved lemon and olives add their brininess as well as their fruity flavors to the dish. This is one of my favorite Moroccan dishes and they get it right here.

Vegetable Couscous

Sixth Course: Vegetable Couscous. Another Moroccan yardstick here. The semolina grain is well-flavored here without the bits being too mushy or too wet. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and seasoned: batons of carrots and zucchini, wedges of pumpkin, ribbons of cabbage, and a mound of garbanzo beans. I was getting real full but I couldn’t stop! LOL

Mint TeaSeventh Course: Mint Tea. No respectable Moroccan restaurant will serve a meal without this cup of fragrant hot tea. It was poured table side and we enjoyed the spectacle. The tea was not too sweet and it had a hint of the mint essence. However, it was dried mint, of which I would have preferred the fresh version.









Cinnamon Orange

Eighth Course: Orange Salad. The plate arrived with slices of orange that have been dusted with confectioners sugar and some cinnamon powder. Taking a few bites, I would not have imagined that cinnamon went well with this sweet citrus fruit. A light hint of orange blossom water took this simple dessert to a distant place.

White Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake

Bonus Course: White Chocolate Strawberry Shortcake. Just when everyone thought dinner was over, I pulled out this surprise.  The cake came from Desserts by Gerard, hidden in an inconspicuous strip mall in Oxon Hill, MD, and run by the former pastry chef at Jean-Louis Restaurant at the Watergate.   Moist and spongy cake is layered with a custard and chopped strawberry filling, and covered by a slightly sweetened whip cream frosting, which I prefer to the heavy butter cream, and topped with curls of white chocolate.  This is a perennial order for my birthday parties, and as much as you want to refuse a slice, “Resistance is Futile” (the Trekkie celebrant would appreciate this).  Every calorie from this delectable light bite (texture wise) is worth savoring at least more than just one plateful.

Marrakech RestaurantFinale:  A warm night, a not-so-in-denial mid-centurian, the various tasty and exotic dishes from a distant land, a sinfully good cake, an alluring belly dancer, a genial restaurant owner, sated and smiling guests, wonderfully exotic ambience, and finally attentive service.  All these elements made for a perfect celebration for my long-time friend who now has this night to remember.  The visit tonight only confirmed to us that Marrakech is worth paying more visits in the future judging by the wonderful experience we had there.

Marrakesh P Street on Urbanspoon

Taste of Tunisia

Taste of TunisiaThe cyber world of online coupons is a fleeting one, just like most personal profiles and some Facebook connections.  When I came across an offer for a Tunisian restaurant more than a year ago, I grabbed it quickly, only to be quickly disappointed by an email stating that the restaurant had closed down.  But a couple of months ago, another came up for this North African cuisine and this time, hesitation had no time to register in my mind and on my finger before tapping on “purchase” on the website.

Taste of Tunisia is located on the busy Wilson Boulevard near the Courthouse Metro, Arlington, VA, and its storefront awning can be easily missed within the blink of an eye due to its inconspicuous appearance.   Stepping in, you immediately confront a large wraparound counter shielding an open kitchen, reminiscent of the old-style diner.  On the other side of the room was a simply painted mural of a North African doorway lit by multi-colored Tunisian lamps.  Even though the décor is a bit sparse and furniture rather basic, I was reserving my assessment for the cooking and the dishes that I was going to order.

Tunisian Mint TeaUpon taking our seat, our charming waiter first served us some Sweet Mint Tea while we perused the menu, trying to decipher this unchartered culinary terrain although I was already quite familiar with another cuisine from this region – Moroccan.  Seeing that there were some similarities between these two neighbors, I detected that there were some subtle differences between the two, and I used that as a guide in making my choices.  Sipping the tea helped me to ease the mind and soul as I became more comfortable with this culinary map.  It was not too sweet, not too piping hot, and made fragrant by a spring of fresh mint that elevated this basic cuppa to its exotic level.  This was the perfect foray to the meal despite it being a sweet drink, and we could not resist asking for a refill during the meal.




Tunisian Tuna Egg Breek

Our first appetizer was unequivocably Tunisian – Breek.  It arrived as a large triangular pastry filled with potato, capers, tuna, egg, and parsley, fried until crispy and golden brown.  We were not sure what to expect from this large patty but it peaked our interest.  With a squeeze of lemon juice, this dish was both revealing and delicious.  The pastry, although listed as phyllo dough, was Breek pastry, more like a wonton skin, encasing the interesting and savory combination that was spiked by the capers, and moistened by a sunny-side-up egg that spilled its yolk with the first fork digging.  The yellow liquid provided the rich flavor and sauce to each bite which I enjoyed very much.  According to Tunisian tradition, a mother-in-law would serve this to the potential bridegroom, and if he eats it without spilling a drop of the yolk, he is worthy of marriage – my companion and I were definitely not up-to-par for such proposition that night judging by the yellow mess on the plate.

An order of salad as the next course was unfortunately uninspiring despite a mound of lettuce leaves topped by almond slivers, canned olives, sultanas, Tunisian sheep cheese (like feta), and tomatoes, served with grain mustard as the dressing (interesting!).  I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for this raw vegetable dish from this regional cuisine.

Taste of Tunisia Couscous

For our main dishes, the first was Taste of Tunisia Couscous. A beautiful painted earthenware bowl arrived brimming with some couscous grain topped with Merguez sausage, lamb chops, chickpeas, a wedge of potato, and a thick slice of zucchini and carrot.  Although I have had my share of this grain dish, there were some unique touches to this dish.  First, the couscous was an orangey yellow hue and it still had a slight bite to it, which the waiter pointed as a main difference from the Moroccan version.  The next was the spice level of the dish coming from the use of the red pepper Harissa sauce in the gravy and also in the small Merguez lamb sausages that packed a wallop in the flavor department.  The chickpeas and vegetables were perfectly cooked tender and the lamb chops, young lamb judging from the size, was literally falling of the bone when cut into.  We dug into this dish enjoying this soulful dish that spoke to us with its authenticity and well-executed cooking and flavors. This was both tasty and soul-stirring at the same time, especially for my eating companion.

Tunisian Musli Chicken

Our second entrée was Musli Chicken which was recommended by our waiter.  The chicken breast was oven baked with a mound of sweet onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and the exotic pickled lemon, ubiquitous in this North African region.  The cut of poultry was still moist, flavorful from the yellow sauce that was savory and slightly citrusy from the use of the pickled lemon that also added some brininess.  Soft thick slices of the lemon further enhanced this unique flavor profile, allowing this diner to add it with each bite of chicken, which satisfied this reviewer who enjoys pickles of all kinds.  The side of rice was a strong co-actor with its strong perfume of cardamom, and savoriness from shallots, punctuated  with bits of browned pasta looking like orzo.  This dish is akin to the Lemon Chicken Tagine which I reviewed in another Moroccan restaurant last year, but the cooking style was distinctively different.  Unfortunately, the side potato wedges were slightly undercooked, but they were at the same time savory from the tangy sauce. A single cooked green hot pepper, looking like a baby zucchini but unrecognizable to me, was an interesting touch that only confirmed to me that heat spice is an integral part of this North African cuisine, unlike its neighbor Morocco.

Tunisian Pastries

Even though we were quite sated from the appetizers and main courses, we did not finish everything on our dishes as we had been eyeing the pastries sitting on the counter from the moment we walked in.  We ordered a plateful of all the different treats displayed and we were glad for having done so.  Makrouch is made with date puree covered by a crumbly nutty dough, soaked with a not-too-sweet syrup perfumed with orange blossom water, and dotted with fragrant sesame seeds.  On the first bite, my friend remarked that this was a better exotic version of Figs Newton, and I concurred with him.  Another triangular pastry made with pistachio and walnuts was packed with a compact nut mixture, sweetened by the same syrup as above, and flakey from the outer shell of phyllo dough – this was my favorite since I’m nutty over pistachio.  The last was Baklava, which I did not expect any different from any other versions that I’ve had before.  But this one was nut-packed with barely any hint of the phyllo dough separating the layers.  What I appreciated from all the desserts was they were not too sweet, and we were told that they were house-made on site.  Each bite of these sweet delights only pointed to the hands of a skillful pastry maker and my kudos to him or her.

Taste of Tunisia is a hidden gem of a restaurant (a common comment from other online reviewers) in a sea of other eating establishments in the busy Arlington area. The dishes that are served here speak of a culinary tradition that is worth exploring and that point towards a knowledgeable kitchen steeped in this cuisine – the sight of an old man behind the stove somehow was quite reassuring for me. Do not be put off by the small space and lack of a plush setting.  But after a meal there, the wonderful food and desserts make up for such a lack. In this instance, you cannot judge the food by its cover.

Taste of Tunisia on Urbanspoon

Marrakesh P Street

Stairwell to the Blue Light. Note: The restaurant has changed management and name. Read about it – Marrakech.

A couple of weeks back, my BFF Kevin and I stepped into a new Moroccan restaurant in the Adams Morgan area to review its performance.  Simple verdict – disappointing.  The dishes were poorly cooked with barely edible stringy meat, the orders were mixed up, and the food was swimming in a pool of oil.  To make matters worse, Kevin got sick from the food for the next few days – poor bugger!

I was hoping that this visit was going to be en par with a recent visit to another Moroccan eatery in the Dupont Circle area.  Some friends and I had originally planned to have brunch in another location on the same street on a freezing Sunday afternoon.  After being told that the wait was around 40 minutes and in the state of famish that we were in, we hauled ourselves down the street and walked through the doors of Marrakesh P Street Restaurant.  It is located on the former spot of a seedy gay bar that was renowned for its campy drag shows.    However, with some dramatic cosmetic transformation (yes, pun intended), the location has taken on a new look and feel, far from its former life.

Great Moroccan Opener Walking into the foyer, you are immediately whisked away to North Africa with its terra-cotta colored and tiled walls, plush deep-red velvet cushions on a sitting area, and exotic brass ware everywhere including the perforated overhead light fixtures.   The dining rooms are divided into the lower casual eating section and the upper “blue room” reserved for dinners.  Small mosaic fountains and large urns are placed around the space evoking a sense of distant exoticism and beauty.   Perusing the menu, the dishes are divided into simple and understandable sections: Hot Tapas, Cold Tapas, Couscous, Tagines, and Brochettes.

Harira Soup

It is rare that you will come across a restaurant that is open for lunch on Sunday and offering a 3-course lunch special ($12.95) on the weekend.  The first course is a choice of Harira soup or a salad – I chose the soup, suitable for the cold weather.   This traditional soup is made with tomato, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur wheat (I suspect), saffron, cilantro and ginger.  With the first spoonful, the broth tasted rich and complex from the spices and herbs, while the grains and beans added body and heartiness to this wonderful starter – just the perfect entrance to this exotic cuisine.

Combo Salad

On another visit, I decided to try a medley of cold tapas as the starter – the Combo Salad.  It arrived with spinach that had been cooked with garlic and preserved lemon; roasted eggplant cooked with fresh tomato, garlic and cilantro; and a carrot salad prepared with garlic, cilantro, and preserved lemon.  This trio was very flavorful, and the dish points to a kitchen that takes great care in its dish preparation.  There was a level of soulfulness in these simple vegetables that matched perfectly with the crusty yet fluffy Moroccan traditional bread that provided the willing backdrop and vehicle to the savory vegetable dips.

Chicken Bastilla

For the hot tapas, I decided to go the traditional route and order one of Morocco’s most recognizable dishes – Chicken Pastry or Bastilla.  Baked Phylo dough has been stuffed with a mixture of chicken, egg, and almonds, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.    This concoction is a study of contrast between the crispy dough and the rather moist filling, the sweet and savory flavors, with the hint of cinnamon adding a certain exotic earthiness to this appetizer.   I have eaten various versions of this dish over the years and although the stuffing was a bit dry (the traditional use of pigeon would make it more moist), it was definitely well-made and worth every bite that I enjoyed.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Moroccan cooking is renowned for its Tagine dishes that have been cooked in domed clay pots.  With this in mind, I decided to order the Chicken Tagine that was part of the 3-course lunch special (the other choice was Vegetable Couscous).  The breast was cooked in a sauce that was flavored with pickled lemons, olives, and a cornucopia of exotic spices that made the sauce very flavorful and delectable, enough for me to wipe up every drop with the spongy bread.   The slices of pickled lemon rind and olives added the brininess and fruit-like notes to the already flavor-packed dish.  I have had this dish before in other restaurants and this rendition was perhaps one of the best that I have eaten.

Couscous Royal

For the Couscous section, my dining companion ordered the Couscous Royal.  Sitting on a bed of the perfectly steamed pasta grains were spicy Merguez lamb sausage, chicken, lamb, zucchini, squash, carrots, chickpeas and fava beans.  The pieces of meat cooked in a tasty broth were fork-tender, along with the well-cooked large pieces of sweet vegetables that were quite soft but not mushy.  A few forkfuls from this dish confirmed to me that the kitchen really cares about the cooking and is skilful in preparing these traditional Moroccan dishes.  This is another must-order from the menu along with the Chicken Tagine.

Fruit Cocktail

Mint Tea
The final course for the lunch special was a Fruit Cocktail.  In most places, such dessert would be a banal mix of fruits that would leave the taster rather nonplussed.   However, this restaurant’s version was a mixture of fresh cantaloupe, melon, pineapple, sweet strawberries, and plump blackberries.   It is indeed refreshing to have a fresh fruit salad that has been slightly sweetened by a light syrup perfumed by a heady orange blossom water, especially in the midst of winter.   The traditional dessert of Moroccan pastries were not available during the last visit, but I have enjoyed such dessert fare there in the past and the sweets were good.  A cup of the customary sweet mint tea was also a perfect end to this wonderful meal.

The dishes that I tasted at Marrakesh P Street Restaurant were a far cry from those that I tried at the other eatery mentioned in the opening paragraph, which will remain nameless and unreviewed.   However, here the dishes were flavor-packed, skillfully executed, and full of Moroccan tasty exoticness.   With this Northern African soul food, this restaurant managed to stir my taste buds and whole being with its traditional offerings that Moroccan cuisine is known for, very much like a belly dancer with her exotic, smooth, and alluring gyrations.  But unlike its former life as a drag show venue, this restaurant truly delivers the real McCoy, at least food wise.  I will indeed be revisiting this place in the future for more of the real stuff found in its wonderful authentic offerings.

Marrakesh P Street on Urbanspoon