Now you say Morocco and that just makes me smile. I haven't seen Morocco in a long, long while..." I hummed this tune during rush hour traffic on my way to a favorite refuge of mine, The Imperial Fez. Upon entering Rafih and Rita Benjelloun's restaurant one is transported to Morocco, its sights, sounds, scents and traditions. Chef Benjelloun takes great pride in all aspects of the meal and reminds us that eating together is more than sustenance. He takes us to exotic Morocco without need of a passport.
The salon is saturated with exotic colors in the form of tapestries, carpets, pillows and cushions. Ornate lanterns hang from the ceiling and framed traditional Moroccan knives and swords flank the walls. Its tented ceiling and low tables that can easily be grouped together are designed for communal gathering. After a hospitable welcome I have left the stress of traffic and have arrived in exotic northern Africa.
The succession of courses begins with ceremonial hand washing. The tass is brought over to your table and warm water is gently poured over your hands and a soft towel is draped over your left shoulder to dry your hands and keep your fingers clean throughout the feast. First dish to be delivered is a cup of harrira lentil soup and Moroccan bread of whole wheat and honey. I drank it and dipped my bread into it. It was so delicious and savory for such a simple ingredient as a lentil, kind of umami.
As food begins to arrive family style at our table, I am enchanted by the emanation of aromas from the kitchen. Moroccan cuisine is characterized by its rich spices: cumin, chiles, paprika, coriander, saffron, ginger and cinnamon. Chef Benjelloun sees cumin and preserved lemon as signature Moroccan flavors. He explained to me just how easy preserved lemons can be created. Perhaps this could be his next how-to video demonstration.
Plates of various salads are set before us. Sweet and sour carrot salad looked benign but was bursting with fresh flavor. It accompanied a cool and crisp shredded cucumber salad with fresh oregano. Also unassuming was the cauliflower salad and the shredded pickled veggies which were heightened by the side of harissa, a paste of garlic, chiles, olive oil and salt. What really stood out for me was eggplant zaalouk. Chef Rafih calls it "poor man's caviar" for a reason. It is savory, tart and satisfying. You can learn make it at home with Chef Rhafi after viewing the first in a series of cooking demonstrations by Chef Rafih produced by Thomas James Photography and Video Productions.
Proof that food does not have to be savory OR sweet arrives in the form of a b'stella, crisp phyllo dough rolled thin and filled with cornish hen (tradition places squab inside), toasted almonds, eggs, dates and raisins minced together, cooked crisp and dusted with powdered sugar. The b'stella has that "made with love" quality that makes a father's food stand above others' to a person. For foods are not just inert objects. They are alive; alive not only with their own transmittable qualities of taste and smell but also alive with essence of their manufacturer. The b'stella was alive with the dynamism of chef Rafih. Watch him create it here.
Quickly our table was covered in dishes with tender, marinated chicken kebabs, a seafood platter and incredibly perfect couscous. Couscous with nuts, raisins and spices is central to Moroccan cuisine just as lamb is a principle meat. Both are expertly developed at Imperial Fez. The grilled lamb chops were delectably smokey and lightly seasoned. The lamb shank seemed roasted for hours into a so-tender, falling off the bone tastiness of garlic, cumin, paprika and cilantro along with a blend of mushrooms."And I've just had a taste of something fine..."
The evening began to come to an end with pastries similar to baklava made with honey and almonds. The tass was presented to us once again, this time along with drops of fragrant rosewater. Glasses of mint tea with fresh mint leaves were delicately poured for each guest. As we sat smiling about our shared experience I thought of how a meal goes beyond a nutrative need to survive. There is a significance to "breaking bread." It reminds us of our connection to other human beings.Chef Rafih will take his feast on the road next month (March 15) when he is the featured chef at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas for a Moroccan dining experience. Each month on the 15th The Cosmopolitan will feature an acclaimed chef for a unique culinary experience. The Cosmopolitan is an incredible destination resort for foodies. The third floor is a mecca filled with inspired chefs surrounding a shimmering three storied chandelier. Chef Rafih will bring authenticity to this Moroccan feast for the lucky few who will be able to attend before it sells out.