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Mouthing Off

More Moroccan: Mataam Fez, at 4609 East Colfax Avenue, was the first Moroccan eatery to turn Denverites on to the joys of sitting on the floor and eating intensely spiced food with their fingers. The restaurant has survived over two decades, not only spawning Fezes in Boulder, Colorado Springs and Vail (now closed), but also lasting long after original owner Abd Rafih Benjelloun moved to Georgia to open Imperial Fez five years ago. At the same time, his brother, chef Said Benjelloun (see review above), left to open his own spots, the short-lived Casablanca Bistro and now Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant.

How has Mataam Fez managed to stay in business while others, such as La Casbah, the snazzy restaurant that lasted little more than a year at 9955 East Hampden Avenue, could not? Got me: I recently stopped by the Fez for dinner with some friends who were treating, and by the end of the meal, I was especially grateful that it wasn't my dime. I should have known where things were heading when the cold salads that started off the five-course, prix-fixe meal ($23.95) were obviously past their prime; they smelled like ammonia and tasted like--well, let's just say they'd gone bad. The place was nearly empty, so I suppose you could blame the old starters on slow turnover--but that doesn't excuse their condition. The b'stella was dry and chewy, as though it had been made ahead and reheated (because of the phyllo, it's one of those dishes that really needs to be served immediately after it's made), and the harira soup had none of the striking spice flavors--turmeric, cinnamon, coriander--that make it the national soup of Morocco.

The entrees weren't much better. (My lamb couscous was the standout.) A lot of the dishes seemed to involve cheap, greasy cuts (who serves just chicken thighs?), and there continued to be a strange lack of the spices typically associated with this kind of cuisine. The best word I can come up with to describe the service would be "sinister": Our server seemed to be very angry with us and the other customers. Not surprisingly, I have no desire to return.

I'd happily go back to Cafe Paprika (13160 East Mississippi Avenue in Aurora), however. This tiny, tidy restaurant is mostly Middle Eastern, but the few Moroccan dishes are superb, especially the harira. Also in Aurora is Marrakesh (1951 South Havana), which does a wonderful lunch buffet. And I've heard good things about The Sahara (9636 East Arapahoe Road), which is also Middle Eastern but run by Moroccans who offer several of their native foods.

To enjoy the flavors of Morocco in the comfort of your own home, give this marinated, grilled shrimp recipe from Casablanca a whirl. If you don't have two days to marinate the shrimp, one does just fine--but be sure to soak the skewers in water for at least a half-hour before filling them all the way to the ends so that nothing catches fire.

Casablanca's Shrimp Royale Brochette
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for grilling
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 medium onion, diced
1 small bunch parsley, minced
1 small bunch cilantro, minced
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound large or jumbo shrimp

In a glass or ceramic bowl, whisk vinegar and oil together; add rest of ingredients and stir well. Cover and refrigerate for two days. On the third day, drain shrimp and place on skewers; brush grill or broiler pan with oil. Grill or broil shrimp 5 minutes per side. Serves 2-4 as appetizer or main course.

There's still more food coming out of Africa--and to a sandwich shop, of all places. The eight-year-old Saladwich, at 3510 South Broadway in Englewood, is expanding to offer Ethiopian cuisine Fridays from 6 to 10 p.m. and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Although owner Aberra Molla and his wife are from Ethiopia, when they bought the sandwich shop a few years ago, they were afraid their native cuisine wouldn't fly here. Now, however, they think it could take off in Denver--and I hope they're right. The regular menu involves 104 sandwich combinations, all of which cost less than $5; the Ethiopian dishes, which include such standards as doro wot (chicken stew) and tibs (reconstituted dried beef), come in at around $7.

Still haven't made reservations for Valentine's Day? An Ethiopian restaurant might not be a bad idea, since such eateries aren't likely to be booked, and the fingers-only technique is very sensual. You take moist, spongy bread called enjera, wrap it around juicy, dripping meats and creamy vegetables, then feed each other. Unfortunately, few of these places have romantic surroundings. The now-defunct Meskerem, at 1501 East Colfax Avenue, was one of the nicest, and it also had great food (former owner Saba Hailemichael is now cooking Moroccan at Casablanca; see review, previous page). There's the Ethiopian Restaurant, at 2816 East Colfax Avenue, which has food similar to that of Queen of Sheba (down the road at 7225 East Colfax Avenue) but a better atmosphere. And while I've not eaten at Axum, 5501 East Colfax Avenue, the scenery couldn't be too bad, unless the owners totally trashed the old O Sole Mio decor.

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