Jul 8, 201012:00 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
The Little Morocco That Could
Sweet mint tea was a good end to the meal.
Photo courtesy of Robert Peyton
Moroccan cuisine has not been well-represented in New Orleans in recent memory. Other than Casablanca in Metairie, the cooking of the North African nation has been hard to find unless you have friends from the country willing to invite you to their homes. Paula Wolfert, in her seminal work Cous Cous and Other Good Food From Morocco, described Moroccan cooking as one of the great cuisines of the world. The abundance of fine ingredients, a variety of cultural influences, a great civilization and a history of refined “palace” cooking were the four criteria she identified in Moroccan cooking to rank it with the food of France and China in the pantheon of classic cuisines. I’m not familiar enough with Moroccan cooking to give it quite that kind of praise, but I have always been interested in the cooking of North Africa, and the addition of the restaurant Little Morocco to the local dining scene is particularly welcome.
Moroccan cooking is most associated with cous cous, the tiny pasta made from semolina flour and treated much as we use rice in South Louisiana. But Moroccan cuisine is more than cous cous, owing to the diverse nature of Moroccan culture. Berber, Arab, Spanish, French and African influences can be seen in the country’s cooking, and regional differences are pronounced.
Little Morocco is located at 7457 St. Charles Ave., in a space that has been several different restaurants and markets in the past few years. It was most recently a beach-themed restaurant called the Cabana Grill that, with all due respect to the fine folks I’m sure operated the place, did not entice my patronage –– or the patronage of many others, for that matter, because it closed fairly rapidly.
The owners have done a basic renovation of the space, mainly consisting of placing woven rugs onto the walls and adding some blue paint to the exterior. I’m told that they have plans to continue working on the interior by adding furnishings imported from the home country, but the space is not unpleasant as things stand. There are large windows that open onto St. Charles and a long dining room with dark floors that hold a series of small tables along the Cherokee Street side of the building. There’s a sitting area with comfortable chairs in a corner near the entrance, and a counter runs along the wall opposite the tables that in the building’s past life served as a deli counter. A more traditional looking bar picks up from the counter toward the rear of the restaurant, behind which the kitchen is partially visible through a service window.
The restaurant has been open for about two weeks, and the service is still a bit shaky. When I picked up some food recently, the pleasant young woman who served me told me it was her first day as an explanation for her inability to answer a question about the menu. But there were several folks around to answer my (admittedly annoying) questions, and I was certainly not ignored or abused. As I write this, the restaurant does not accept credit cards, but the equipment is in place, and I was told it would be operational before long. Until then, there is an ATM on the premises.
There is also no liquor license at the moment, and while the restaurant is in the process of applying for one, they did not seem optimistic about their chances of success. The fact that you can’t purchase alcohol at Little Morocco is offset by the fact that there is no corkage fee. With as many excellent wine shops as we have in New Orleans, bringing your own bottle is a great way to keep the total cost down while still enjoying an excellent bottle of wine with your meal. I would make a recommendation on the kind of wine to bring to the restaurant, but that’s Tim McNally’s gig, and I don’t want him pissed at me for stepping on his turf. I’ve seen him slap a man senseless for much less.
As I mentioned above, Moroccan cooking is most commonly associated with cous cous, but the slow-cooked stews known as tagines are a close second. “Tagine” describes both the food and the vessel in which it is cooked, a glazed clay pot with a conical lid. You can purchase tagines (both the dish and the cooking vessel) at Little Morocco, which in addition to the dining options, offers a limited selection of Moroccan and Middle Eastern foodstuffs for retail. I picked up some of the restaurant’s homemade harissa, a jar of similarly house-made preserved lemons and a pound of imported cous cous when I was there last.
The food I sampled so far at Little Morocco was very good and left me wanting to return to try a few more of the offerings. There are six appetizers on the menu, and the sampler I ordered recently consisted of four: hummus, taktooka (roasted bell peppers and tomatoes with herbs, spices and lemon juice); spiced carrots with an olive oil and cumin vinaigrette; and zaalook, an eggplant dish that’s akin to baba ganoush but with tomato, garlic and cilantro. The hummus was good if not extraordinary, but there was a bit of olive tapenade in the center that added some interest. There was also some of the restaurant’s harissa in the center of the four items, and although it looks like it would be hotter than hell, it’s really not. It’s a puree of roasted red chiles, spices and lemon, and it’s widely used all over North Africa.
Harissa also accompanies some of the grilled items served in the restaurant. The meats, which are locally sourced and naturally raised, are grilled over hardwood charcoal. Choices include chicken, beef and ground beef kefta, which are served as kebabs and in sandwiches; spicy lamb merguez sausage, also made in the restaurant, comes as a sandwich only.
I tried the cous cous with lamb and was not disappointed. The lamb was a bit overcooked, but the cous cous and vegetables –– zucchini, carrot, sweet potato, turnip, potato and chickpeas –– were excellent, particularly mixed with a little harissa. The cous cous that served as a base for the dish was moistened with broth and was outstanding. Other cous cous choices include a version with only vegetables, one with chicken and cous cous “Royal,” which is a combination.
Tajines (as they are spelled on the menu) include chicken with pommes frites in a sauce with ginger, olives and preserved lemon; beef with artichoke hearts and sweet peas; lamb with plums seasoned with a spice mixture called Ras el Hanout, honey, sesame seeds, and topped with eggs; and the “Catch” tagine, which is fresh sardines baked over sliced potatoes and carrots in a mildly spicy tomato-lemon sauce. If you’re not a fan of sardines from a can, you might try them fresh; they still have a distinctive taste that fans of the fish love but milder. The potatoes and carrots that lined the bottom of the tagine were not cooked to the point of becoming mushy, as I’d anticipated; there was still some texture to both. The sauce was tart enough to stand up to the intense flavor of sardines without entirely masking what makes that fish appealing to those of us who enjoy it.
I did not get a chance to sample any of the desserts on offer, but I did have a bit of tea. Flavored with whole mint leaves and sweetened more than Paula Deen’s smile, it was a nice way to end the meal. All in all, I was happy to see another restaurant serving the cuisine of Morocco open in New Orleans. It’s a bit early to throw a parade, but I’ll definitely be back in the near future; there’s a lot more of the menu that I want to check out.
Little Morocco is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Call them at 301-9184 for more information or to place a take-out order.