- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It looks like a palace. A handsome costumed Moroccan holds the door as you enter and step across a floor of delicate tiles into the front room of Washington’s newest Middle Eastern restaurant, Marrakesh Palace on P Street west of Dupont Circle.

Brightly polished Moroccan brass vessels greet the eye, and benches covered with North African fabric are arrayed along the deep reddish walls, recalling the color of Marrakech, known as “the red city.” A few stairsteps at the back of the room, and you’re in a large dining room fit for Scheherazade to recount her tales.

A large skylight on the high slanted roof admits the light of day; a tiled fountain in the middle of the room adds the gurgle of water that is typical of Moroccan homes and restaurants. The floor is a blaze of lush carpet, and supporting columns are wrapped in an attractive fabric. More cloth-covered benches and soft pillows announce that this is a room for feasting.

If only the food were always as good as the ambience. The cooking, almost good enough, lacks the spirit and verve of other Middle Eastern restaurants in town. Many of the dishes, especially the starters, or mezze, are familiar to diners at Turkish and Lebanese restaurants.

The vegetable dishes, especially the cold eggplant puree (zaalouk), are very good. The eggplant is roasted and then sauteed with tomatoes, garlic and paprika. Bakoula, or spinach, is sauteed with garlic, olive oil and preserved lemons. Salads are varied and include the traditional mix of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, as well as a Tangiers salad of sweet corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beets and tuna.

Cigars, flaky pastry filled with ground beef, resemble plump Chinese egg rolls rather than slim Turkish versions of cigars. They are underspiced and a bit dry, but the pastry is crisp, and the filling is ample.

An appetizer of fava beans sauteed in olive oil with Moroccan herbs and a cumin-cilantro sauce, called foul, was not available on a recent evening. Our waiter said the dish had been so popular over the weekend that the restaurant had run out of fava beans. Mussels were missing, too, another casualty of the weekend.

The merguez lamb sausage, on the other hand, was available as either an appetizer or a main course, and it was tasty and spicy. A Moroccan anchovy starter consists of four white anchovies marinated in vinegar and olive oil. These little fish, found in Italian and French restaurants, are served at Marrakesh Palace atop a salad of mixed lettuce, tomatoes and olives.

Outstanding among the mezze is the small square of chicken bastilla — often spelled “b’stilla” — a unique dish of meat encased in phyllo dough and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The pastry is deliciously flaky, the small chunks of chicken are tender, and the touch of sweetness makes a lovely combination of subtle flavors that play happily on the tongue. It’s a typically Moroccan dish, and Marrakesh Palace’s version is a fine one. One wishes the chicken bastilla were available as a main course as well as an appetizer. The bastilla is available in a seafood version with shrimps, scallops and mushrooms.

A dish of four grilled shrimp in a garlicky sauce is flavorful and well prepared, although the shrimp were somewhat toughened from being a shade too long on the grill.

Couscous, Morocco’s national dish, and tagines and brochettes highlight the main courses. The couscous — steamed semolina — is served topped with chicken or with lamb and vegetables, all in large chunks. The lamb with the chunks of carrots, onions and turnips is excellent.

Vegetable couscous or rice accompanies the brochettes (kebabs) — chicken, lamb, fish, ground beef (kefta) or the spicy lamb sausage. The tagines, cooked in a covered clay pot, are traditional, too, slowly cooked stews of chicken, lamb, fish or veal. We tried the chicken Fassi, a combination of pieces of chicken on the bone cooked with dried apricots. The apricots give the chicken a pleasant element of sweetness. The chicken tagine also can be prepared with peas and carrots or with preserved lemon and olives.

Lamb tagines are similarly prepared with vegetables — squash or potatoes and peas — or with prunes and almonds. The couscous and tagines are served in large portions sufficient for two persons, especially after a sampling of the mezze.

Desserts also are traditional. Moroccan baklava differs from the Greek in taste and appearance. The thin, slim rectangles of pastry, immersed in a honey syrup, are sweeter than the Greek or the Turkish version. Mint tea nicely concludes a Moroccan meal.

There’s a good offering of international wines, including several from Morocco. The red we drank, Guerrouane Rouge, is hearty and dry, similar to the wines of Algeria, but not exactly a bargain at $40 per bottle. There’s a good sampling of wines by the glass.

Affable, costumed waiters are eager to explain the dishes and recommend specialties — but not the absence of the belly dancers. We were told the dancers entertain every night, but when we arrived at 8:30, the dancer had come and gone. On weekends, there are three performances throughout the evening.

The restaurant is open from lunchtime through dinner with the same menu and prices. It’s great fun to go to Marrakesh Palace in a group and try a little of everything on the menu. Even, sometimes, the belly dancers.

RESTAURANT: Marrakesh Palace, 2147 P St. NW; 202/775-1882

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Mezze $5 to $7; main courses $14 to $19

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Dupont Circle (Red Line)

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