The Dominion Post Indulgence – Eating Out

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Moroccan food, the likes of which Wellington hasn’t seen before, excites David Burton.From having nowhere to go for Moroccan only three years ago, Wellingtonians now have the Casablanca or a foray around the bays to Marrakech.

Casablanca is the old Medina renamed, but Marrakech is new, having occupied the former Bay Leaf Café at Greta Point since December 6. Chef-patron Abdel (Abdelghani) Eldraoui is already known to the Wellington restaurant scene, having trained and worked here for 15 years, most notably at Le Metropolitian and the Duxton Hotel. There has also been a murkier history, in places I was less thrilled to hear about, such as swimming pool cafes and Tug Boat on the Bay (which, it must be emphasised, has recently changed ownership).

Marrakech is Abdel’s owner-chef venture, understandably modest, and with a firm, unromantic grip on what should sparse passing traffic in this not hugely auspicious location will buy; panini, filled rolls, coffee and biscuits.
But, really, you should forget the counter food and let Abdel cook you his beautiful native Moroccan kai, the like of which has never been seen in Wellington.
One of my best food moments occurred in Tangier, listening to the live music of a Moroccan orchestra, while breaking the crackly, wafer thin waraka pastry of the famous pigeon pie called b’stilla – or Bastilla, as it is spelt on the Marrakech menu.

Waraka is akin to filo, but a slightly coarser, peasanty, homemade version, a bit thicker with the ability to colour dark brown and go very crispy in a way that industrial/artisanal filo just won’t.
Certain other Wellington restaurateurs, who will not be named, have been known to pass off filo as waraka. But the moment I cracked through Abdel’s mahogany-coloured, multi layered waraka, dusted subtly with cinnamon and sugar, I knew I was being offered my treasured Moroccan memory. The crisp pastry contrasted with the rich, soft, lightly spiced chicken and scrambled egg filling. M’mmmm.

From my very first reading of the menu’s entrée selection, I was excited. There, under Mixed Dips, were three that Wellington has never seen before; bessara – an unctuous cumin and coriander-scented, lemony puree dried split green pes, laadissa – made from our equally common supermarket red lentil; and zaalouk – a magical spicy, oily tomato and eggplant relish, redolent of cumin, garlic, vinegar and fresh coriander.

Main courses offered the obligatory kebabs, couscous and tagines, all tasty and immaculately executed, while more waraka reappeared for dessert as the pastry for a Moroccan take on baklava, presented as tiny, fried and honeyed samosa shapes.

Technically, our service was patchy; they failed to notice that by drawing off a few glasses, I had run the water dispenser dry, and my guests order for “chicken couscous salad” was misheard as “chickpea couscous salad”, and the wrong dish was delivered. Then they cleared cutlery with the offending dish, and forgot to renew it. “Oh dear”, said Abdel’s charming wife, “we are giving you bad service”. But at least she cared, and that counts for heaps.

Abdel won’t exactly say what is in his dishes or how they are made, half jesting that every recipe come from his mother, a professional chef in Marrakech, who passed them on only on the condition that they not be divulged to anyone.

Like the food, the décor is folksy and cosy, rather than chic. But Abdel is pressing on with renovations that will see a new wall of glass facing the street and a boudoir extension at the back. Watch this space.