If what you see on TV is true, Morocco is an intriguing destination full of exotic sights and fragrant food rich with spices.
And though I've never been to the North African country, I feel like I found a hint of it during two recent visits to Marrakech Gourmet, a midtown Omaha Moroccan restaurant that serves Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food in a relaxed, casual setting filled with a wild mix of odd yet interesting decor.
Flavors of Morocco dominate the menu, and chef/owner Moussa Drissi also dabbles in Greek, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Aside from a couple of disappointments, we found food at Marrakech that was deeply spiced, rustic and, on a whole, satisfying.
After operating Marrakech Gourmet in the food court of the Brandeis Building downtown, Moroccan native Drissi opened his restaurant in June 2010 near 33rd and California Streets. It's among a handful of recent businesses that are slowly transforming the Gifford Park neighborhood, home to local favorite California Tacos, as well as newer additions like a bike shop and a vintage boutique.
With a craving for tagine instead of tacos, we stopped in to Marrakech for dinner on a Friday night, soon after the neighborhood farmers market had ended.
Richly colored rugs, ornate metal tea sets, desert paintings and camel figurines aren't uncommon for a Moroccan place, but some other items here do stand out: A big statue of the RCA dog, large stained-glass windows with leopards, wooden Olympia beer signs and a dress form wearing a cute 1950s frock.
The food is just as eclectic. My dining partner and I started by sharing two appetizers, zaalouk and caprese salad, which we both enjoyed.
A cooked Moroccan salad with a chunky consistency, the zaalouk consisted of warm, creamy roasted eggplant, caramelized onion and tomatoes with cumin, cilantro, parsley, paprika, garlic and turmeric. We spread spoonfuls of the spiced, smoky zaalouk on wedges of soft, warm pita.
Caprese salad reflects Drissi's background in Italian restaurants and his love for the country's cuisine. Simple yet elegant, it featured alternating slices of juicy red tomatoes and mozzarella arranged on a plate, topped with chopped basil leaves plucked from Drissi's garden. It's finished with a drizzle of fruity olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar reduction for a sweet-acidic note.
I also liked my saffron lemon chicken entree. Fall-off-the-bone-tender braised chicken thighs were served on a fluffy mound of basmati rice and smothered in a flavorful, aromatic sauce of saffron, kalamata olives, turmeric, cumin, parsley, olive oil and — the star of the sauce — house-preserved lemons.
A Moroccan condiment, preserved lemons are pickled for months in sea salt and their own juice. Pieces of lemon rind provided delicious pops of tartness to the dish, which included a side of sautéed mixed vegetables. I liked that the vegetables went beyond the basic carrots and potatoes and even included two of my favorites: beets and Brussels sprouts.
My dining partner ordered the lamb tagine. He said the meat was tender and succulent and the saffron basmati rice underneath was light, fluffy and clump-free. The dish was accompanied by the same sautéed vegetables as my chicken entree.
I'm not a fan of lamb, but I liked the bite I tried. It was moist, not dry and chewy like some lamb dishes I've had.
The night’s low point was the baklava we shared for dessert. We appreciated that it wasn’t overly sweet like baklava tends to be, but we thought it was dry, crumbly and difficult to eat.
We tried splitting the big square piece in half but had a hard time getting a fork through it. The layers of phyllo dough shattered easily, causing the nutty filling to spill out.
Drissi said his version of baklava is crispier than others and also not as sweet since it's finished with a drizzle of honey instead of drenched in syrup. I thought it could use more of a sweet, sticky syrup to hold everything together better and add moisture.
Next time, I'll choose the crepes, the only other dessert option. Drissi said he hopes to include more items on the menu, both sweet and savory, in the future.
Hopefully the veggie club panini stays on the menu. It was my favorite item during our second visit to Marrakech for lunch.
The sandwich was loaded with fresh baby spinach, sliced tomatoes, gooey mozzarella and grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers, tucked neatly between two slices of ciabatta. Seasoned with ginger, cumin, turmeric and parsley, the ingredients all came together under the heat of the panini press for a light yet satisfying meal.
The gyro that my dining partner ordered, as well as the vegetable samosas we shared, differed from what we were used to.
Instead of a spiced-potato-and-pea filling common in vegetable samosas at many Indian restaurants, Marrakech's version contains shredded cabbage and carrots, among other vegetables. I happen to love cabbage, so I didn't mind at all.
What I didn't like, though, was one of the dipping sauces for the samosas. It tasted like straight-from-the-bottle ranch dressing.
Drissi said the sauce is his version of Greek tzatziki. It does have a little bit of ranch dressing and mayonnaise added for consistency, but he enhances it with fresh cucumber, garlic and cilantro. I'd stick with the housemade mint chutney.
He also puts his own twist on gyros. Don't expect a pita filled with thinly shaved pieces of gyro meat. The version here features sirloin steak, sliced into strips. Marinated with charmoula — a Moroccan spice blend of garlic, cilantro, parsley, paprika, olive oil, turmeric and other ingredients — the meat is tender and full of flavor.
For two appetizers, entrees and a glass of iced Moroccan mint tea, our bill for lunch ran about $25, roughly half of what we spent for dinner.
Despite a few duds, Marrakech Gourmet — like the country of Morocco — is worth exploring. It's a nice option when you're in the mood for exotic eats. And with such eclectic surroundings, there's bound to be something cool to catch your eye.