A Taste of Marrakech -November/December 2010
Food, shopping and sightseeing in Morocco
by: Susan Simon
It took every bit of mental strength to resist the temptation to turn my "Shopping in Marrakech" (The Little Bookroom, 2009) book into an "Eating in Marrakech" guide. Even so, I managed to mention several restaurants, cafes, food shops and markets in the original book just because you need to eat while you're walking around, and food is always a good purchase, especially preserved foods, oils and pastries: items that can be exported with ease.
Let's say that food and shopping and sightseeing are the focuses of your trip to Marrakech. How would you begin?
First of all, January through May is the best time to be in Marrakech. The winter months may be slightly chilly but the sunny days make getting around a pleasant experience. April and May are gorgeous: hot, but dry, and the days always end in cool evenings. This is the desert, after all. Traveling there from the East Coast could not be easier. There are daily flights from New York's JFK airport that will bring you to Casablanca in a little over six hours. From Casablanca it's a short 45-minute flight to Marrakech. Because the time difference between the East Coast of the United States and Morocco is only four hours, you might arrive feeling chipper enough to rent or hire a car and driver to take you through the countryside to Marrakech from Casablanca in about 2-1/2 hours. I have two suggestions of places to stay once you've arrived, one in the city, and another in the countryside. Dar Mo'da (http://www.darmoda.com ) is an authentic riad – African-style home with a center courtyard open to the sky – located very, very conveniently in the Medina. The Medina is old Marrakech, walled in by deep orange-colored ramparts. In addition to Dar Mo'da's convenient location – on the Medina's most stylish street, Rue Moussine, and a few minutes' walk to the city's hub, the main square, Jemaa el Fna – its private suites, rooftop swimming pools, and its official greeter, a charming parrot called Charlie, the guest house offers private, one-on-one cooking lessons from its resident chef.
Peacock Pavilions (http://www.peacockpavilions.com) is located a short 13 kilometers southeast of the Medina. The Pavilions are a group of three eco-friendly, beautifully-designed buildings sitting in the middle of an olive grove. One of the houses is occupied by the owners of this boutique hotel, and the other two are divided into two- or three-bedroom suites. All Pavilions guests are invited to have their evening meals in a beautiful dining tent filled with Beni Ourain carpets (white and black tribal Moroccan rugs) and walls painted with old Moroccan embroidery patterns. Peacock Pavilions offers cooking lessons from its chef and Moroccan wine tastings for parties of six or more.
Now that you're comfortably situated and have refreshed yourselves with a tumbler of freshly-squeezed orange juice and a glass of fragrant mint tea, it's time to explore the city. If I may toot my own horn for a moment, buy "Shopping in Marrakech" even if shopping is not the focus of your journey. The guide's maps alone are worth its price. The maps will take you step by step through the labyrinth that is the old city, as well as the areas outside its walls.
If you're at Dar Mo'da, make a right turn as you leave the house, then turn left at the first intersection onto Rue Dar el Bacha. If you're staying outside the city, get yourself to the main square inside the walls, the Jemaa el Fna, face northwest, turn left at the Café Argana, and you will arrive, in seconds, at a small square, Bab Fteuh. Turn left onto the Rue Moussine and take the crooked walk past colorful, diverse and amusing shops until you come to the Rue Dar el Bacha. Turn left. Walk until you cross a wide street that will lead into the Rue Bab Doukkala. The whole Bab Doukkala area of the city is considered the best place for food-shopping, as well as the location of two its finest – and most traditional – restaurants. Let me qualify traditional Moroccan food before I continue. Morocco is not the Middle East with hummus, baba ganoush, tahini and falafel on every menu. Morocco is North Africa, where couscous is the reigning food. The grain is typically steamed over lamb, chicken or vegetable broth, then served with tagines, stews made with lamb, chicken and simply-prepared vegetables that are often flavored with dried fruits such as apricots, prunes or dates and fried or toasted nuts – almonds are almost always a first choice. The meal is usually preceded by a selection of vegetable salads. The salads can be made with raw or cooked vegetables and are almost always flavored with ground cumin and other aromatic spices. They are always served at room temperature accompanied by coarsely-textured Moroccan bread which is somewhat flat (it's left to rise only once), but is not pita. It's addictive, and I've never found it anywhere else but Morocco, unless you make it at home.
Dar Moha at 81 Rue Dar el Bacha (http://www.darmoha.com) will more or less be on the right soon after you cross the street. The restaurant – once home of the French couturier, Pierre Balmain – is open for lunch and dinner. It's not just the food that's authentic. The atmosphere is, too, with huge silk-covered cushions for seating, low-slung tables and multi-faceted hanging lamps. A bit further down the rue you see an obvious left turn that will bring you to Dar Marjana (http://www.darmarjanamarrakech.com) in a tiny alley, Derb (which means alley) Sidi Ali Tair, at number 15. Have a special house cocktail made with fig liqueur while seated on heavily-embroidered cushions at low tables. Gnaoua (a mixture of Sub-Saharan, Berber and Arabic music) musicians entertain throughout your stay. A walk all the way to the end of Rue Bab Doukkala will take you past countless food shops selling everything from chickens and rabbits (yes, you will see them alive and all of a sudden not), eggs, spices (amazing spices, which are easy to bring home; Moroccan cinnamon is my favorite) vegetables, bread, melt-in-your-mouth macaroons, piles and piles of fresh mint and verbena, olive oil, tagine dishes for cooking everything, and roses: lots of roses. Marrakech is the city of roses. Buy a variety of rose-scented products. They make great gifts.
On the opposite side of the Medina, in the area of town called the Mellah, find another of the city's more interesting food markets. Again, leave from the Jemaa el Fna. Find the Café de France on the east side of the square, go around it and turn right onto the Rue des Banques, which will lead you into the Rue Riad rRue all the way to the Mellah, turn right at the Bahia Palace, walk past a little park and look across the way for the Marche Couvert. The entrance to the covered market is framed by buckets and buckets of roses. There are stalls filled with fresh, very fresh Atlantic Ocean fish – Remember, coastal Casablanca is only 2-1/2 hours away – little cages with live rabbits innocently nibbling on clover, canned goods, pyramids of oranges, dried fruits, nuts and spices. Walk across the street to the Places des Ferblantiers (metalworkers) and find, at number 47, (on the left, if you're coming from the market) a delicious restaurant with an improbable name, Kosybar. Sit upstairs on the restaurant's west-facing terrace. Try to be there for a sunset dinner. The Japanese chef prepares a delicious fusion of Asian and Moroccan food.
Al Fassia may be my favorite restaurant in Marrakech, and my reasoning is due not only to its outstanding food, the fact that the place is owned and operated by women, but also because I celebrated a rather important, ahem, birthday there with a group of good friends which was punctuated by the women of the restaurant signing a "Happy Birthday" song to me in Arabic that ended with ululations: memorable indeed. Al Fassia is located in Gueliz, at 55 Boulevard Zerktouni, outside the walls in an area that is also called Ville Nouvelle. On that unforgettable evening we dined on briouats – small, savory-filled crispy pastries (they can be sweet too) – assorted vegetable salads; bisteeya, a crusty pastry pie filled with chicken (or pigeon); lemon and almonds; and lamb stewed with fragrant spices for so long that it melted in your mouth.
Although I've heard many people advise against the restaurant Dar Yacout, in the Bab Doukkala area of the Medina at 79 Sidi Ahmed Soussi, as being way too expensive for not very exceptional food, I say go. This palace was decorated by the late, great – and undervalued – ex-pat American designer Bill Willis. Dar Yacout will bedazzle you with its colors, patterns, lamps, pools, plants, carpets, music and views of the city from its terraces. The food keeps coming (it's OK, nothing like the other places that I've mentioned) and it may be too much, but you will feel like a pasha by the time you leave, and where else can you have that experience?
- Dar Zellij (http://www.darzellij.com) for traditional food, located in the northeastern area of the Medina at 1 Kassour Sidi ben Slimane.
- Le Foundouk (http://www.foundouk.com) for French-Moroccan food, located in the southeastern area of the Medina at 55 Rue Souk el Fassi.
- Palais Soleiman (http://www.palais-soleiman.com), located in Gueliz near the railroad station on Boulevard du 11 Janvier, is the stunning restaurant in the riad/hotel of the same name. It serves traditional Moroccan food.
Susan Simon is a cookbook author and food columnist for The Inquirer and Mirror. Her most recent cookbook, "Pasta Sfoglia," written with Ron and Colleen Suhanosky, received the James Beard Award in May for Best Cookbook on a Single Subject.