Sometimes you don't have to act like you know everything.
Consider, for example, my recent visit to Andalous Moroccan Restaurant. I deliberated over the menu and its unfamiliar offerings for a good 15 minutes before deciding on an entree: Kefta Kabob, which the menu described as seasoned ground beef marinated in savory Moroccan sauce, grilled and served on a bed of couscous and vegetables.
Owner and server for the evening Hadj Akaahirr looked at me with pity. "Don't get that," he said, unable to hide his disappointment. "There are so many better things."
My plan to act the part of the Moroccan gourmet was foiled. I had succeeded, however, in revealing my inexperience to both the owner and the four people with whom I was dining.
He enjoyed watching me blush behind my menu for about 20 seconds before he offered an alternative. By the end of the meal I had forgotten my embarrassment and licked my plate clean of the Casablanca Tagine, ground beef and basil rolled into tiny meatballs, swimming in a thick, spicy Moroccan sauce. I left thanking Akaahirr for suggesting one of the best meals I've had in a long time.
The food and traditions of Morocco are as multifarious as the people that inhabit it. One may rightly guess that the country is heavily influenced by its neighbors to the north (Europe) and south (Africa), but the culture also has strong Islamic (the Berbers, the Islamic indigenous people of Morocco, make up 80 percent of the population) and Arab influences. Many liken the cuisine to that of the Middle East or Turkey, and while I wouldn't disagree with them, I think it more descriptive to note the spices used in most dishes, namely, cumin, coriander, saffron, chilies, dried ginger, cinnamon, and paprika. These spices are traditionally cooked with meat and vegetables in a stew, or tagine.
Once Akaahirr realized he was host to table of novices, he became determined to make our first Moroccan dining experience something to write home about. His suggestions came fast and furious, and before we knew it our tiny table was covered in steaming dishes of fragrant food.
First up: Tiny egg rolls (or Briwate) filled individually with shrimp, beef, and chicken. The Moroccan version resembles a standard egg roll except smaller and thinner, and the flaky roll is dusted with cinnamon and sugar. This sweet starter was an excellent companion to the spicy Zaalouk appetizer, a dish of grilled eggplant cooled with green peppers, tomatoes, and onions (kicked up a notch by saffron and garlic), which we scooped up with warm bread.
Akaahirr hovered happily over our table for much of the first course making sure we were trying a bit of everything, using the appropriate condiments, and thoroughly enjoying ourselves. His assurances that our entrees were being made "lovingly back in the kitchen by Moroccan women" made us more than a little impatient for the main course.
Our entrees arrived some 25 minutes after the appetizer plates had been cleared (we were convinced at that point that there was actually only one Moroccan woman in the kitchen cooking food for the entire restaurant), but all irritation vanished when we caught a whiff of the smells emanating from the plates. In minutes, the food began vanishing as well.
The citrusy Tetouan Tagine was one of the first to go -- tender beef marinated in a sizzling butter sauce and sautéed in a stew of onions, artichokes, peas, and chunks of softened lemon rind. The Rabat Tagine, beef stewed with mushroom, garlic, zucchini, and Moroccan spices, was also a favorite among our group. (I'm confident my dish, the Casablanca Tagine, would have been a crowd-pleaser as well had I not been so greedy.) But the true winner of the night was the Chicken Pastilla -- a massive pocket of chicken, almonds, and spices rolled in a phyllo dough, sprinkled with cinnamon and baked until crispy. It's difficult to put into words how amazing this delicious mess of layers tasted -- try to imagine mixing a piping hot chicken pot pie with a cinnamon/sugar churro.
Several sentences could be devoted to dessert (sugary baklava pastry and sweet mint tea served in tiny tea pots and glasses) but I feel my adoration of Andalous may now be apparent, if not a bit grating. There is the tiniest possibility that I was so enamored by the dining experience that I was blind to any imperfections -- some may find fault with Andalous' crowded dining room bedaubed with stereotypical tribal souvenirs -- but I found the tiny storefront to be intimate and charming. But even the most unpleasant of cynics would have to admit the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives; the prices are fair (most entrees are priced around $11), vegetarian options are plentiful, and there is rarely a wait (a rather amazing feat for a restaurant on Clark in the heart of Wrigleyville).
We waved goodbye to Akaahirr that night, thanking him for being our fearless tour guide through the intricacies of Moroccan cuisine rather than letting us stumble helplessly off course. Ordinarily I insist on independently foraying into the unknown, and for once I was relieved he had been adamant about taking the reigns. I learned a little about Morocco, a little more about the native cuisine, and a lot about the place I now tell people is one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.
Andalous Moroccan Restaurant is located at 3307 N. Clark St. The restaurant is BYOB.