Cafe Society

A Rare Bird

One of the best reasons to eat at an ethnic restaurant is to sample another culture relatively risk-free, without the expense, hassle and occasional danger associated with actually traveling to far-flung corners of the globe in search of pigeon pie or the perfect shark taco. You don't have to pack a bag or endure body-cavity searches by overzealous airport security. There's no need to worry about shots, passport photos or suffering through an in-flight showing of Weekend at Bernie's 2; you won't encounter armed peasant uprisings or embarrass yourself in front of the locals by refusing to eat the snake head or chicken foot offered to you as an honored guest. Odds are good that you won't come home from your crosstown odyssey with dysentery or a liver fluke; in fact, the chances of you being bitten by an angry monkey or contracting dengue fever are almost zero.

Then again, all of these comforting, convenient, antiseptic benefits are also the downside to experiencing world cuisine within the confines of your home town. Eating sushi in downtown Denver -- seated in a comfortable booth, drinking cold Sapporos and joking with an English-speaking waiter about the quality of the eel -- is one thing; eating sushi hunched over a bamboo counter in Tokyo's Ginza district -- bathed in hot neon, half deaf from the clanking pachinko machines and rubbing shoulders with sake-drunk sararimen bitching about the quality of the eel -- is quite another. Eating schnitzel and bratwurst in the foothills is good; eating it while overlooking the Alps is better. And while the spicy, blood-red Moroccan Merguez lamb sausage I tried at Cafe Paprika carried a hint of the exotic, the alien and the strange in every bite, I couldn't help but look through the gauzy curtains to the glow of McDonald's golden arches across the parking lot. It made me wonder if at that very moment some travel-sick, gustatory thrill-seeker was sitting in a hard, orange plastic booth in Fez, Rabat or Tangier, wolfing down a quarter-pound cheeseburger and lamenting his view of the medina. Sure, Chicken McNuggets taste fine in the spice market, but to really understand the schadenfreude at play in American fast food, you have to experience them at a 24-hour truck stop in Peoria....

I was thinking about this -- about Merguez sausage, McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and the importance of place -- as I sat stripping spiced kebab meat off skewers with my teeth in the back of Cafe Paprika's tiny, ten-table dining room, as far from the door and Aurora as I could get. Since November 1993, Chakib Marrakchi, a native of Fez, Morocco, has been serving authentic flavors of the Middle East in this unexotic strip mall. Behind me was a mural of the desert, as seen through arched windows with palm trees bending in an imagined wind and tiny men on camels traveling toward the sunset; twangy Middle Eastern pop music played softly in the background. I closed my eyes, trying to lose myself in the smell of saffron, lemon, and steaming, sweet mint tea served in small, blue, gold-rimmed glasses. At 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, the restaurant was empty, so there was no one to see me dreaming.

The kebabs were certainly dreamy. Skewered cubes of lamb, sausages and big, fat shrimp (char-grilled with the shells on), all bare of any sauce, surrounded a dome of yellow saffron-scented rice. The sharp, acrid scent of the grill, with its rustic edge of smoke and char, still clung to the meat. The lamb was burned crisp at the edges but tender inside; the shrimp tasted brassy on the tongue until I bit down into perfectly cooked flesh. The entire plate was simple, unfussy, cozy -- like most of the dishes here.

There's nothing phony or forced about what comes out of Paprika's kitchen. Owner Marrakchi has brought to Colorado the flavors of the Maghreb, the farthest west, unadulterated by fad or food fashion. A traditional sampler platter brought garlicky hummus sweetened with lemon juice, solid falafel heavy with cilantro and spice, and a creamy baba ghanouj. The flavors played together easily, comfortable in their proximity after ages of being paired in exactly the same way. Sesame, lemon, garlic and paprika mingled like old friends. The harsh, sour temper of cilantro was softened by the silky weight of puréed chickpeas, fava beans and eggplant. And just to keep things lively, a stripe of Moroccan cucumber-tomato-and-onion salad stretched across the center of the plate, tangy with a bright vinaigrette.

A few days later, late for work, I stopped in and picked up a gyro sandwich to go. I lived on gyros back in Buffalo, grabbing one almost every night from the pushcarts that lined up in front of the bars, waiting for last call. Like Denver's burrito guys, the gyro-and-falafel men were the best friends of Buffalo's night creatures, serving up foil-wrapped pitas stuffed with sliced, pressed lamb, lettuce, tomatoes and onion drizzled with tzatziki, a cucumber-and-yogurt sauce with an uncanny knack for always squirting out the wrong side of the pita and staining your pants. Although Cafe Paprika's gyro skipped the tomato and onion, it was just fine. The thin-sliced gyro meat had been lightly spiced with black pepper, lemon, oregano and garlic, laid thick on top of crisp, cold iceberg lettuce dressed with a tart raspberry vinaigrette, then folded inside a thick, chewy pita with tzatziki drizzled on top.

That quick trip left me hungry for a longer stay in the Middle East. So on another visit, my wife and I lingered at Cafe Paprika, gorging ourselves on bastilla. As apple pie is to America, so bastilla (or bisteeya, depending on whom you talk to) is to Morocco. It's a party food, a dish meant for celebrations. Made up of several layers of delicate, crisp phyllo dough filled with saffron-spiced chicken, onions, crushed almonds and herbs held together with an egg batter, bastilla is pan-cooked into a round pie and topped with powdered sugar and an ornamental design drawn in ground cinnamon. The combination of powdered sugar, chicken and onions may sound odd to the separatist American palate, but in Cafe Paprika's bastilla, the sugar's sweetness woke the tastebuds to the heavier, deeper flavors of the spices, helping to carry all the confluent tastes on the strong backs of the saffron and cinnamon. The kitchen also cooks up a mean seafood bastilla, stuffed with tiny scallops, tiny shrimp, shreds of white fish and mushrooms bound with vermicelli noodles. Both versions were extraordinary, so far beyond my expectations that I forgave Cafe Paprika for not offering the traditional version made with pigeon, a food I have yet to try. And while the menu lists bastilla as an appetizer, don't be fooled: One order will easily feed two people.

Unfortunately, not everything at Cafe Paprika lived up to the bastilla's high standards. The harrira soup tasted like watered-down Campbell's diet vegetable without salt. Although lentils, chickpeas and herbs mingled deep down in the thin tomato broth, nothing had been done to bring the flavors to the fore, and their interplay was like a whisper heard through a closed door. The chicken tajine, a slow-cooked stew, featured inexplicably dry and rubbery chicken, a sauce without punch, and limp peas and carrots from a can. The apricot chicken -- a remnant of the French colonial influence on Morocco's culinary landscape -- was like melted lemon-apricot cotton candy drooled over more overdone, lifeless fowl and some well-cooked vegetables. This dish came with a nice, fluffy couscous made by steaming the rolled semolina over an herbed broth rather than boiling it, a preparation that created a dry, soft texture rather than the gluey, starchy mess found at other, less considerate restaurants.

"Rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe" -- that's how the late King Hassan II described his Morocco, comparing it to a desert palm tree standing at the edge of the Eastern world. Those words capture the country's food as well, poetically summing up the centuries of powerful influences that have filled its kitchens. To really understand a person, you must walk a mile in his shoes. To really understand a people, you must have a meal in their homes. And while eating at Cafe Paprika may not be as good as having your bastilla in Fez, Chakib Marrakchi has brought to Colorado a little piece of his home.

And all that's missing are the pigeons.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan