A waiter is never just a waiter. He also serves as a restaurant's ambassador, guiding a diner through unfamiliar territory. A good waiter can make a bad meal better and a good meal great. But when a server is bad, it flavors the entire meal.
Morocco was in dire need of an ambassador the night we first visited Marrakesh. We could have used a tour guide just to find the four-month-old restaurant, which is stuck in the back of an Aurora plaza--hardly a promising location for an exotic eatery. But once we stepped through the door, we found ourselves in another world--or at least another country. The dining room is opulent, richly decorated with Moroccan antiques, gold-patterned pillows and elaborate copper paintings. Every square inch of the space is covered with something eye-catching, including the ceiling, which is hung with loose dark-green, burgundy and yellow fabrics that shimmer like velvet. We felt like we were inside some wealthy Berber's tent.
Some wealthy Berber who'd hired the wrong servant. A good waiter would have been useful in explaining the intricacies of Moroccan food, which, in addition to Berber cooking, also reflects Arabic, European, Jewish and Mediterranean influences. All of these show up on Marrakesh's small menu, but explaining such nuances was beyond our waiter. When he deigned to visit our table--a party of fourteen claimed most of his attention--he tended to order us around rather than help guide our order. For starters, he corrected my pronunciation of our first appetizer, the hen bastilla ($4.95). When I said "basteeyah," which is correct, he rather haughtily informed me that it was "bastil-la." No matter how you pronounced it, though, the dish was delicious: Phyllo-layered pastry had been filled with minced Cornish game hen and almonds, then dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Somehow, my order of harira soup ($2.95) got lost in the translation. Instead of the hearty North African stew of tomatoes, lentils and lamb that I expected, I got the shorba ($2.95), which would have been fine if the soup had been a traditional shorba--hearty and full of vegetables in a spicy broth. But this soup tasted like doctored-up Campbell's, right down to the thin noodles, which I've never before encountered in Moroccan cooking. When I asked about the soup's unusual composition, our waiter and a busboy tried to convince me that it was an authentic shorba.
The waiter also insisted that the salad he'd brought was indeed the "combo" platter ($5.95) we'd ordered. What we got was a plate of diced tomatoes and cucumbers flavored with cilantro and parsley--one of the salads that's included in the combo. But we were also supposed to receive samples of the chekchouka salad of green peppers and tomatoes, the zaalouk salad of eggplant, the potato salad and the marinated carrot salad. When we asked where those salads were, the waiter told us they'd been tossed in with the tomatoes and cucumbers. For a combo, he said, the kitchen "mixes up all the things that are in the other salads and puts them together." But while he was very insistent on this point, no amount of detective work turned up even a trace of those missing salads on our plate.
We were a little confused about the kefta brochettes ($10.95), too, because a brochette is usually a skewer holding grilled meats or vegetables. Here the kefta had been grilled, but the seasoned ground beef was rolled in a cigar shape. Maybe a skewer had been involved earlier in the process--but we certainly weren't going to ask our waiter for an explanation. There was no mystery about the lamb meshwi ($13.95), however: This was straightforward roasted lamb with onions and tomatoes, spiced with coriander and caraway and a touch of garlic.
The table of fourteen that had consumed our server's attention had also consumed most of the desserts. The only remaining option was the Marrakesh crepes ($3.50), four simple, thin crepes folded into triangles and sprinkled with cinnamon and almonds, then drizzled with honey. We chased them with a glass of B&B, which was owner Abdul Aftah's way of saying sorry.
The next time we visited, for lunch, Abdul himself waited on us. Not surprisingly, the owner's service was impeccable; I later learned that he'd been waiting tables at India's for nine years before deciding a year ago to open a restaurant with his brother. Abdul's expertise as a server made his employee's behavior all the more lamentable, because he obviously knows what good service is. From the sincere efforts to explain Moroccan foods to the just-out-of-the-oven sesame-coated breads to the replenished water glasses to the just-out-of-the-oven honey-soaked buns for dessert, our meal ran like clockwork.
Between Abdul's visits, we ate spoonful after spoonful of the dishes we'd picked from Marrakesh's lunch buffet. Offered daily from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., the $5.95 spread is a great--and inexpensive--way to sample many Moroccan dishes. We tried beef stewed with prunes, chicken with olives and onions that had been braised with lemon juice, lemon-perfumed couscous, saffron-yellowed rice, pureed lentil soup and lentil-heavy harira soup (the real thing this time). Poached potatoes and a simple salad of tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers served as sides, and dessert was those addictive little sticky buns.
We washed it all down with Moroccan red wine, which Abdul had highly recommended. While it didn't have the body and depth that other wines offer, it was interesting--and Abdul was so delighted we'd tried it that we didn't regret a sip. In addition to the Moroccan wine, Marrakesh offers a few domestics and two French wines, including a lovely bottle from Provence that was one of the highlights of our first meal there.
On our third visit we had yet another waiter who, although inexperienced and unfamiliar with Moroccan food, at least admitted it. And he tried hard, which resulted in an actual combo salad arriving at our table. Although all of the salads were well-made, the eggplant in the zaalouk elevated it way above average. The hen merouzia ($13.95), a whole chicken served in a sweet and mildly spiced sauce, and the fish m'sharmal ($15.95), orange roughy filets cooked with tomatoes, green peppers and lemons, both rated excellent grades. Like most of the food we tried at Marrakesh, these were simply but expertly prepared; the seasonings--stock Moroccan spices such as cumin, coriander, caraway, fenugreek and cinnamon--had been added, then cooked into each dish until no one spice stood out and everything melded into one complex flavor.
With food this splendid, it's a shame to let poor service leave a bad taste. So when I called Abdul to ask a few questions, I told him about his problem waiter. He let out a big sigh and replied, "Too bad I cannot do everything."
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He certainly comes close. Along with his brother Mohamad, Abdul created the superb decor; he also managed to hire a chef straight from Morocco.
Now he just needs an ambassador.
Marrakesh, 1951 South Havana, Aurora, 873-9777. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Sunday.