Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they’ve led
Listen up to what’s been said to you
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
Would you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express
All on board that train
- Crosby, Stills & Nash
For decades, Hollywood has portrayed the ancient Moroccan city of Marrakech as a venue in which mystery and intrigue can be found along every narrow street and behind every sharp turn, a place of fantasy where fire-eaters, sword-swallowers and snake charmers perform–a city with a dizzying array of food stalls, richly adorned palaces and alleyways crowded traditional shops in which intricately woven tapestries and brass works dazzle the eyes.
Alfred Hitchcock certainly exploited those characteristics in his suspenseful 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much where middle class Americans played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day vacationing in Marrakech find themselves embroiled in a nefarious plot to assassinate an ambassador after their son is kidnapped. The movie has me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it, as much for the suspense which builds to a surprising climax as for the unique way in which the 1956 Best Song Oscar Que Sera Sera plays a role in the plot’s resolution.
Although they couldn’t catch the Marrakech Express of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame, from 1998 through the millennium year, Duke City diners managed to make their way to Marrakech in droves–not to the Moroccan desert, but to Central Avenue where Tunisian owner and chef Ridha Bouajila created an alluring menu of North African and Greek cuisine favorites at his fabulous restaurant, appropriately named Marrakech. To aficionados of the uniquely seasoned, vibrant melding of heretofore unavailable flavor combinations, the closure of this inimitable restaurant warranted a flag flying at half mast.
Bouajila returned to the Albuquerque dining scene in 2004 when he launched the Mediterranean Cafe–essentially Marrakech reborn. The Mediterranean Cafe on San Mateo (at the site which most recently housed Quesada’s) operated under Boajila for two years before he sold it to his business partner. Within a year, the restaurant folded and once again savvy Albuquerque diners were left in mourning for the Moroccan cuisine with which they had fallen in love.
On December 11th, 2009, the discerning Duke City diners captivated by Moroccan cuisine had a reason to celebrate again when Bouajila launched his second instantiation of Marrakech. It was situated in the shopping center which for years was the site of Robb’s Ribbs. Ensconced in the corner shop between an old-time barber shop and an Asian restaurant, its tiny storefront belied the nearly 3,000 square foot space, by far the largest restaurant Bouajila has operated.
Step through the blue door and let the captivating aromas emanating from the kitchen waft over you like a delicious, enveloping breeze. Those aromas perfume the air with incomparably rich dishes melding sweet and savory on the same plate–dishes which incorporate dried fruit such as dried plums and apricots; aromatic spices like cinnamon, paprika and dried ginger; and ingredients which make seasoned chefs swoon such as preserved lemon, rose water and saffron. The ingredient and flavor combinations are inspired and bold, the results memorable.
Marrakech is a large open space awash in color from intricately woven tapestries and their multihued mosaic patterns; sheer, whisper thin silken fabric coverings and bright colored walls on which artful accouterments are hung. The high ceilings and the industrial-style ductwork are painted blue similar to the original Marrakech on Central Avenue. The tasteful color array is warm and inviting.
Tables are well-spaced to allow for private conversations though because of the restaurant’s openness, you can’t help but gawk in admiration as large plates of stunning food arrangements are delivered to other patrons. Laine, our waitress during our inaugural visit, is friendly and accommodating and like all great waitresses, takes it personally when guests like the food. She beamed radiantly with pride with each (and there were many) compliment we paid and when she couldn’t answer a question, she stepped into the kitchen and retrieved the answer from the chef.
Just as he did at his previous Albuquerque restaurant stops, Bouajila made it a point to come out of the kitchen to welcome diners and ensure a pleasant dining experience. Now, pleasant is probably the most understated adjective any diner will use after a meal at Marrakech. Be daring in your ordering (translation: go for the Moroccan entrees, not the familiar Greek standards) and you’re assured a dining experience in which your taste buds are titillated, your imagination is unencumbered and your soul is satisfied.
That’s not to say the Greek items aren’t fabulous. They’re just so familiar–you can have gyros, dolmas, hummus, Greek salads and Spanakopita at several Greek restaurants throughout the city. Do what Marco Polo would have done and take a different culinary route through a Moroccan menu that might seem strange and different, but which offers an adventure you won’t soon forget.
Aside from the aforementioned Greek dolmas, hummus and Spanakopita, the appetizer section of the menu includes a soup du jour, baba ganouch (Arabic), falafel (Arabic) and brika (Tunisian). Brika, a Tunisian turnover, is an excellent start to your dining adventure, a delicate pastry filled with seasoned potato mousse, fresh parsley, herbs and egg then fried to perfection. It’s a starter with which we were quite familiar from visits to the original Marrakech and the Mediterranean Cafe and one we’ll have during future visits.
In discussing the appetizers with the buoyant Laine, she raved about the restaurant’s dolmas, indicating most guests have praised them highly. It’s easy to see why. Served cold and nearly saturated in olive oil, the five grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice are arranged in a star-shaped pattern surrounding a bowl of cucumber sauce. They are not made in-house, but they’re a definite keeper. At first bite, you’ll experience the sensation of what can only be described as effervescence, as if biting into a fizzy lemon-lime drink. That, we discerned, is courtesy of the dynamic mingling of dill and mint, a sensation heightened by dipping the dolmas into the mint and yogurt enhanced cucumber sauce. These are the best non-homemade dolmas we’ve had in Albuquerque.
Given a choice of hummus or baba ganouch (usually spelled baba ghanouj), we always seem to prefer the latter in part because the name just rolls off your tongue so exotically, but mostly because it offers more textures and flavor than hummus. An Arab dish made of mashed eggplant mixed with various seasonings, it’s also not quite as ubiquitous in the Duke City as is hummus. The version at Marrakech is lighter, sweeter and less garlicky than others we’ve had. Served with six wedges of pita bread, it is a very good baba ganouch.
The entrees section of the menu includes a Mediterranean plate (Greek salad, dolmas and Spanakopita served with pita bread), a Mezza Plate (Greek salad, hummus and baba ganouch served with pita bread), a Falafel Plate, a Tunisian plate (brika served with rice or house salad), a Vegetarian Delight (Spanakopita, dolmas and pita bread), a Gyros plate and Moussaka. It’s an inviting panoply of entrees, but they’re mostly Greek and at the risk of over-emphasizing this point, the Moroccan dishes offer more flavor.
The Moroccan dishes are appropriately listed in the “Specialties” section of the menu, but that title could be reduced by a few letters. Call it “Special” and leave it at that because this section of the menu is indeed special. The specialty of specialties, according to the menu cover, is the couscous. Couscous is a North African staple and is the main ingredient in many dishes in the way rice is the main ingredient in so many Asian dishes. In shape, color and texture, it even resembles rice. It’s made from small grains of semolina with vegetables and sometimes meat. Marrakech offers several couscous dishes.
As an essayist of restaurant visits, it’s not very often I’m surprised by something I’ve never tried before. The last time, in fact, I remember being surprised was at Pars Diner with a dish called Fesenjoon, a stew made from sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce. Marrakech completely took me aback with an entree called King’s Bastilla. Though the word Bastilla, a Spanish word for “hem” is completely lost on me, the exotic dish blew me away. It’s called “King’s Bastilla” because it’s served to esteemed guests at special occasions such as weddings. It is indeed a special dish worthy of royalty.
Traditionally, bastilla is made with pigeon, but Marrakech uses chicken instead. A crisp, whisper-thin pastry shell made from Moroccan warqua or phyllo dough encloses an amalgam of moist chicken, ground almonds, rose water and spices. The shell is sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Quite honestly, it looks like a dessert and is in fact rather sweet, but definitely not cloying. Its sweetness is acquired primarily from the delicate rose water and ameliorated by the powdered sugar. It’s one of the most unique and delicious dishes I’ve had in the Duke City and frankly, I can’t wait to have it again.
At most Moroccan restaurants, the most popular dishes tend to be Tagines, named for the special pot in which they’re prepared. Tagines are slow-cooked stews braised at slow temperatures which result in aromatic vegetables, sauces and tender meats (generally lamb or chicken). The Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, a marinated chicken breast cooked with dried plums, dried apricots, almonds and honey, topped with sesame seeds and served with rice, is a wonderful entree with a fine balance of sweet and savory flavors complemented by the tanginess of the reconstituted fruits.
The Marrakech Express should head straight to 4801 Central Avenue for an exotic dining experience Duke City diners will want to repeat time and again.
4801 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Dolmas, Baba Ganouch, Tagine of Chicken Mruzia, King’s Bastilla