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A SHORE BET

A restaurant claiming to serve Mediterranean food is in a good position--the menu possibilities are endless when you stake out a territory including such culinary strongholds as France, Italy, North Africa, Spain, Greece and Turkey. Then again, sometimes it's better to stick with what you know best, which could explain why chef/owner Chakib Marrakchi, originally from Fez, Morocco, has taken most of the selections at Cafe Paprika from his native country and the nearby Middle East rather than from the European side of the sea.

Marrakchi did spend some time in France before coming to the United States ten years ago, and prior to opening Paprika in November, he was a banquet manager at Strings and a floor manager at Boulder's European Cafe. It was during those stints, he says, that he realized he wanted to own his own place so he could serve dishes from restaurants and geographic areas where he'd spent time.

But Morocco is where Marrakchi's real food education began. "I learned how to cook, in part, from my friends," he says. "And I picked up some from the restaurants I worked in. But most of my recipes and my techniques I learned from my mom."

It shows: Marrakchi's entrees have the warm-flavored, slow-cooked appeal of home--if, of course, your home were in North Africa. And his other dishes are textbook examples of what's great about cooking from the southern parts of the Mediterranean.

The lesson starts with the salads. Servings of several different salads is the Middle Eastern equivalent of the pu pu platter, and Paprika's salad maison ($4.25) offered ample tastings of six well-chilled hodgepodges of vegetables and seasonings. The tomato salad boasted a liberal application of garlic, parsley and cumin; the eggplant nested with tomatoes and oregano; the beets had been dressed with lemon juice and chopped parsley for a lively punch heightened by the expedient use of salt.

The pungent pastilla ($4.25) was another appetizer of complex proportions: layers of puff pastry (rather than the traditional, thinner phyllo) held translucent onion bits, gently scrambled eggs and soft, saffron-scented chicken pieces. The whole deal--almost big enough to be a meal for one--was abundantly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and sprinkled with powdered sugar for a sweet and savory pie. It was so tasty that we were surprised when Paprika's harrira ($1.95/cup) came up lacking: the puree of lentils, tomatoes, rice (which at least gave the soup good body) and cilantro didn't taste of anything, not even the often-overbearing cilantro. A generous addition of salt did nothing to bring up the flavors. Fortunately, our Greek salad ($4.25) arrived soon after this disappointment; the mixed greens/feta medley was covered with an incredible raspberry balsamic vinaigrette that the waitress proudly proclaimed as Marrakchi's own. Even my husband, who doesn't like the salad's standard cucumbers or Kalamata olives, found himself fighting for anything on the plate with the sheen of that dressing.

The battle for bites continued as we took on the entrees. The lamb shank ($9.25) had been roasted with onions and raisins until the onions were butter-soft and the lamb clung to the bone by only a few tender threads. The side vegetables obviously had been cooked right along with the meat, because the zucchini, green bell peppers, yellow squash and carrots were imbued with the lamb's flavor. A reduction of saffron and the meat and vegetable juices pooled on the plate; Marrakchi had used this liquid to braise the accompanying couscous. But it was the raisins that put this dish over the top--they'd turned into nearly caramelized pods with puddinglike centers.

A similar concentration highlighted the spring vegetable kabob ($6.95). Thick strips of zucchini, red and green bell peppers, onions, summer squash and carrots had been grilled with a balsamic-tinged sauce. What the menu described as "exotic herbs" were hard to distinguish, but the final product was what mattered: a piquant blend of heady grilling and a well-melded marinade. The dish rested on a mound of basmati rice and more of that wonderful sauce. Our only complaint was that we ran out of vegetables long before we finished the starch.

On a return visit for lunch, Marrakchi almost ran out of falafel ($4.25) before we got a chance to try a sandwich. We had arrived to an empty dining room at 12:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon and were told there was no more of the deep-fried, minced chickpea mix; after a lengthy kitchen conference, the waitress emerged with the information that "the chef thinks he can stretch it out for one more order." What he stretched it out with was not apparent, perhaps because of the strong garlic, cumin and coriander seasonings. The accompanying cucumber-mint sauce tasted overwhelmingly of yogurt and had little cucumber and even less mint, which left the spicy falafel balls hurting for that sweet-and-sour counterpoint. Equally bland was the gyro ($4.25), the typical combination of lamb and beef with onions and tomatoes. The meat had no discernible spices, and the tahini sauce, made of raw sesame-seed paste, had been watered down into nothingness.

The desserts didn't lack for flavor--in fact, too many tastes marred what would have been perfect endings. An order of baklava ($1.95), the quintessential Middle Eastern dessert, was a real eye-opener. A nice balance of nuts and sugar that was neither too sticky nor too dry, Paprika's baklava had been glued to the plate with a first-year culinary student's pride and joy: a "painting" of sauces--here strawberry and what tasted like Hershey's syrup--done in stripes. Aside from the visual twinge, the flavors were as suited to baklava as they would be to...creme caramel ($2.50), the other dessert we sampled and were horrified to find stuck to the same pastiche. The caramel had soaked into the decoration; we saved what we could of the wonderful custard by sliding it onto the place mat.

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