Ice dam antidote

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January 17, 2011
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
Visiting Morocco’s Marrakech, we got lost in the medina’s maze of tiny, tangled lanes. In Northeast Minneapolis’s Marrakech, we disappeared, instead, into the snowdrifts. But once inside the Sahara-bright café, that minor difference was erased by a warm welcome and aromas from the kitchen. Its walls are hung with heavy Berber carpets and handcrafted handbags, along with photos from the homeland of its owners, Hassan El Atiti and Redouana Elattaouri, the gents behind the cash register and stove.

What brought them here? True love. Hassan married a Minnesotan, who chose snow banks over desert sand as any local, brought up to distrust pleasures, would insist.

Which means lucky us. Not only is the food delicious and service sweet, but, try your best and you cannot spend more than $10 and change for an entrée. We started with a brimming soup bowl of harira — a comfort dish of beef broth married with tomato sauce in which lounged chickpeas, lentils, spaghetti strands, celery and onion, seasoned modestly with parsley and cilantro. It’s served with house-made bread, as are all entrees, so irresistible, alas, that we polished off two baskets of the fluffy, slight sweet and slightly salty stuff — fashioned in a layer cake pan, then cut in wedges.

It makes a grand conveyor of the eggplant salad that’s also gratis with entrees. But this evening, they’d run out of eggplant, so dual salads took its place: long-cooked, straight-up lentils and a far more intriguing salsa built of crunchy tomato and onion bits with snippets of cilantro, all spiked with a lovely, ice-melting dash of harissa.

Then, on to the tagines — the signature slow-simmered stews of Morocco. Choose chicken with tart olives and preserved lemon; beef with veggies; kefta meatballs topped with eggs poached in tomato sauce; a fish version; or our winning selection, fall-apart-tender beef cubes stewed with sweet and juicy prunes in a succulent gravy, all topped with slivered almonds and a dusting of sesame seeds. Heartwarming.

But the bastilla has fast become customers’ favorite, according to our server, and with good reason. In Morocco, it’s a complicated, labor-intensive preparation composed of layers of puff pastry alternating with pigeon cooked with nuts, raisins and spices. Here, you may be happy (or not) to learn, the pigeon has been replaced by chicken, joining aromatic saffron, ginger, cilantro and almonds between phyllo layers, then baked under a shower of powdered sugar and cinnamon. It’s thus sweet and savory at the same time, like eating a hot-dish dessert.

We also tried the couscous, opting for the vegetarian version that heaped chickpeas, carrots, zucchini and onions atop a generous heap of the grain, clearly cooked from scratch and not a packet. The dish, however, came across as merely bland and boring.

We didn’t order dessert, but — salaam — out it came: a beyond-sweet twist of phyllo drenched with rosewater and honey under a toss of almonds, and a biscotti-like cookie, dusted in cinnamon, to dip into our second pot (salaam again) of mint-flavored tea.

Marrakech Moroccan Café and Grill  //  1839 Central Ave. NE  //  788-0405