Marrakesh logoAnd/or: How not to make an entrance at a busy NW Portland Restaurant.

Yes, that clumsy person who Marnie politely and discreetly refers to in her review is naturally me, the person who forcefully plunks down on her ottoman only to go flying backwards into the lap of the young and trendy gentleman sitting about two feet behind her. Hey, the guy took it extremely well, I just wish I had actually consumed any or all of the drinks which my tablemates accused me of having earlier so I had some excuse for being the only person so graceless that I couldn’t manage to keep my buttocks tastefully on my cushion where it belonged. Anything to be the center of attention, you know?

Anyway, my go to girl Marnie MacLean kindly sacrificed part of her lovely Saturday to help me out with the restaurant review duties, so here’s what Marnie had to say about our foray into Morocco, Portland style:

“I’ve had Moroccan food a few times in my life so Marrakesh didn’t pose any gastronomic surprises for me. As with my previous experiences, the menu is largely fixed, with some options for entrees, or a chance to try the chef’s selection, for a slightly higher price. Personally, I suspect the later is a means of using up what has not been popular that evening; but I may be a cynic.

There are three things about Moroccan dining that the uninitiated might wish to know ahead of time; most of the food is served on a common plate, to be shared with the table, utensils aren’t normally supplied, and you will likely be seated on a tuffet close to the floor. Marrakesh ups the ante by booby trapping their tuffets and watching their patrons go tush over tea kettle. (Editor’s note: Who could Marnie be referring to here?????)

Our accommodations at Marrakesh consisted of two distinctly separate but adjacent tables , around which the 13 of us sat. We had our gracious host, Jackie, at our table, along with Bev and David and Larry and Erica. Since Bev and David know Jackie well, and Erica and Larry, Leo and I are all friends, our table never lacked for fun and zany conversation. While I lament that we didn’t have a chance to talk to the folks at the other table, it was great to get to know our little group better. And, hey, David was the best
sport of the bunch, getting water poured, accidentally, into his beer and opting to go native and eat his entire meal sans utensils. I think, per Bev’s suggestion, that we should all come wearing those cool belly dancing bras, for the next event.

I was absolutely famished when I got to the restaurant and barely able to maintain any sort of tact, awaiting the chance to order. Note to self, there’s no harm in snacking when dinner will be served late. Our first course was a thick lentil soup, which our table seemed to enjoy. I’m not a terribly huge fan of lentil soups, but as far as they go, this one was fine, mildly flavored and with a nice texture. As I mentioned earlier, there are no utensils, so the soup was sipped from the bowl.

The second course is a salad, served on a communal plate and consumed with the aid of bread. This is where my first real complaint comes in. The bread is not the sort of flat and flexible bread one is used to using at a utensil free restaurant. As Jackie mentioned, it had more in common with foccacia bread. Since none of us were offered our own bread plate, we were told to take as much bread as we needed for the course and then we had to finagle holding all the bread, tearing off thin enough pieces to grab some of the
dish, and then steadying the piece to our mouths. I found the cucumber and lettuce salads very nice. The baba ganoush style puree was fine, though I would prefer it with more garlic. The sampling of potato salad, though was too small to even ensure that everyone had a chance to try it. It was an acceptable course, but nothing special.

The next course is a pastry stuffed with chicken and sprinkled with powdered sugar. This is always the most daunting dish for the neophyte. I thought the filo dough was excellent. The filling was savory and was well complimented by the sugar. More of a personal note, I’d prefer something like this served as individual bite sized dumplings so that it is easier to regulate the dough to filling ratio, especially since there are no utensils. At the end of the dish, there’s always the carnage of leftover filling, with no means
of obtaining it, short of grabbing a fist full.

Leo ordered his entrée early since the waitress warned that two dishes were nearly sold out. I later heard her say, to a neighboring table, that the restaurant always runs low on these two dishes, which begs a pretty obvious question. Why wouldn’t they properly stock these dishes to accommodate the demand? It’s only slightly less absurd than a sushi restaurant running out of rice. Leo’s dish was the Brochette Merrakesh; “leg of lamb served with rice and vegetables.” I had the Chicken Lemon and Olives.

The Brochette was served kabob style, on long skewers. The flavor was fine but the meat was decidedly dry. The rice and vegetables were so bland as to be inedible. If this is the dish that sells out first, it doesn’t speak well for the other options. My Chicken, Lemon and Olives was much more flavorful and fall-off-the-bones tender. There was a much stronger olive than lemon flavor. It was a simple dish, but good. I tried a taste of Larry and Erica’s Chicken and Apricots and found the sauce cloyingly sweet and syrupy. I am, however, not a good judge for this dish, since I don’t tend to care for sweet sauces on my entrees; preferring more savory sauces instead. While Leo was happy to eat his meal with his fingers, even doing a respectably good job on the small amount of rice he had, I opted to ask for a fork. The bread
just did not offer an easy means of keeping one’s fingers clean and I’m loathe to manhandle my food, especially when we planned to sample from each other’s plates. A few of my tablemates did the same, which opened us up to the derision of our other table.

Dessert was a sweet mint tea and either fruit salad or a small wedge of pastry. The tea was very sweet. None of us seemed terribly taken with the dessert offerings. I did, however, sincerely enjoy the orange blossom water, the waitress put on our hands.

Overall, I would say that for a fixed price meal, we certainly received decent service, fun entertainment and enough food to leave us full, but my previous experiences with Moroccan food left me feeling disappointed with Marrakesh. Nothing stood out as exceptionally good. It startled me how many items were sold out, from both the drink and meal offerings and all the food was relatively uninspired.

Once again, I’m left feeling that the social interaction, significantly outweighed the meal in quality, but at least it was easy to keep track of the bill. “

Thank you Marnie, astute as always.

To be honest, I actually found the food at Marrakesh better than I expected. Marrakesh has survived on the fickle Portland dining scene for many years now, but until I started RR I really never had any desire to go there. In past days I have tended to select restaurants because they are new, or I have heard good things about them, or because I like the kind of food they specialize in. Marrakesh falls into none of the previous categories. Marrakesh has always been known as the sort of place to go to because it’s different and fun, not because of any clamor you hear around town about the terrific food being prepared there. But I’ve tried to take the dinners for Restaurant Roulette all over the map (literally,) so Morocco, here we come, entertain us!

I was a bit disappointed by the decor inside of Marrakesh, I suppose I expected some wild and ornate Casbah of eating, but it was actually a large square room filled mainly with Middle Eastern tapestries, low slung round mosiac tables, and foot rest things to sit on, if you weren’t those lucky people sitting on the benches against the walls. The room downstairs that everyone saw when they visited the restroom looked like it might have more potential. The floor seating arrangement definitely wrecked havoc on my already trashed out knees, and as the evening wore on and I squirmed more and more o get comfortable, I couldn’t help but notice the look of ecstasy on the faces of the floor sitters during those brief respites when they got up to venture down the steep flight of stairs to the restrooms. Stretching one’s legs indeed, not to mention one’s back.

As expected, the servers were dressed in the Arabian Nights loungewear you would expect in a place like this, the bright red fezes the male staff had on having an extra goofy twist to them, something like Dr. Suess goes to Casablanca. Everytime I caught a glimpse of the waitress from the corner of my eye, I kept thinking I had accidently woken someone up and they were coming after me in their nightgown. All the staff looked really big and tall, but I’m sure that was mainly because I was sitting 4″ from the floor and they were standing up, but it seemed like the employees were looming over me all night long. The waitress, while relatively pleasant, seemed somewhat worn out, like she he poured one too many glasses of steaming tea and handwashing water from miles above her customer’s heads. (As someone pointed out, lugging those gigantic brass containers of handwashing water around all night is probably exhausting.) The waitress, although looking like a boring run of the mill Anglo type (like many of us mutts) had an extremely unusual accent, maybe something similar to what you might imagine coming out of Mata Hari’s mouth. She looked extremely disappointed when I coaxed Marnie to ask for forks during the entrees.

Upon sitting down, we were told they were out of both Moroccan Beer and Moroccan Wine. Well, at least they weren’t out of all Moroccan food, which puts them a cut above Meiji-En. I am starting to realize which are the really well run restaurants that we go to, however, those that aren’t overwhelmed by a group of 12 or 13 people, and those who don’t run out of half the entrees by 8:00 pm (so far, Acadia has been the most impressive.) As Marnie mentioned, it doesn’t seem like very good planning when you run out of the two most popular items night after night (lamb brochettes and hare.)

Other observations: I found the modern glassware particularly jarring, I suppose cheap glasses are universal around the world, but sleazy diner just didn’t go that well with the brass serving pitchers the beverages were being poured out of. After I rolled on it, and touched it, I couldn’t help but notice how dirty the fuzzy brown carpet was, and I kept fixating on how close I was sitting to it all night long. Once I dug into the food however, and used my white gym towel they gave me as a placemat while eating the filo dough and powdered sugar thingee, I no longer blamed Marrakesh for the condition of the rug. My eating area looked like a blizzard at the sugar coated croissant factory. The waitress kept making comments like “you’re supposed to get all gross and sticky” and “you’re supposed to make a really big mess.” Do you suppose this is what people in Morocco think when they sit down to eat, “Remember, we need to trash this place out and turn into big blobs of gooey messiness.” It seems unlikely. I did like the mismatched china plates though, they were cute and homey, but as Marnie pointed out, couldn’t they have either given us a plate to put our bread on or a basket of bread for the whole table, it’s not like this place puts out much money for either dishes or silverware, and this hold you hunks of bread and try to still eat the salads arrangement was for the birds.

Considering how early I had made the reservation, I was not particularly happy that the group had ended up at two separate tables, especially as the round tables led people to sit with their backs to each other. I was sad I never really knew what was going on at the other table all evening, and what they were eating, and myself, or for that matter, anyone else at “our table” never had much opportunity to talk to Jody, or Julia, or Grace, or Christina, Michael, or Frank, although they seemed to be having their share of the fun over there. I was glad to see that Jody, who was only at her second RR diner and knew no one at her table, acclimated herself so deftly that not even 15 minutes after arriving she was seen with her head in Michael’s lap (???????) Way to go Jody, way to fit in!!!

Of course, this was the more “adventurous” table anyway, not only were they so anti-cautious that they ordered The Royal Feast (see Marnie’s comments on her suspicions that “The Royal Feast” and “The Day’s Discards” are all the same,) but these six daring diners ate these various delicacies largely sans silverware for the most part, I’m assuming the routine was just to grab a big wad of whatever suited you at the table and to shove it into your mouth, wipe you hands on your towel, then grab another hunk of whatever, and repeat the process. Now that’s gutsy (and messy,) although I think a couple of people at the “Survivor Table” did get some forks toward the end.

Highlights of the evening were most certainly when the waitress refilled David’s glass with water (so what if it was half full of beer. That’s what dark beers are for); when the waitress “accidently” poured handwashing water in the frontal crotch-type area of the guy seated at the next table over; and when the Arabesque record got stuck during the belly dance routine and the belly dancer tried to rapidly gyrate out of the room to the redundant beat the needle was making. Don’t they make cds in the eastern world?

As mentioned at the beginning of this ordeal of the written word, I like most of what I had at Marrakesh. Starving though I was, I wasn’t that keen on the lentil soup, as I’m not that thrilled with cumin crazy cooking. Despite the weird bulky bread, I liked the salad plate, the cucumber salad was particularly yummy, and I enjoyed the flavor of the bread, even if it seemed totally improper for its purpose. As Marnie mentioned, although incredible cumbersome to eat, the B’stellela Royale was delicious, the flaky dough, cheese, powdered sugar and ground chicken an unusual but palate pleasing combination. Unfortunately for several people at our table, they had decided to wear black, and when they were finished with this Moroccan delicacy they looked like attendees of a “terminal dandruff” convention. I enjoyed my chicken with honey and prunes, but because of its syrupy sauce I was one of those despicable sorts using a fork. I tried to compensate for my eating implement, however, by using it mainly as a spear, holding my chicken pieces up in the air and nibbling bites off without touching my plate. I was doing my best to not bask in the civilization of silverware too fully. Although the spearment tea was interesting, in my opinion it’s one of those things where a little goes a long way, like smoked beer and cucumber water. As for the included dessert, we were told they had a limited amount of fruit salad ( three per table,) and that they would substitute a pasty item for the remaining seven people. I don’t know if I would ever call the dryish cornbread with molasses type thing pastry (or dessert for that matter,) but by then it didn’t matter, there had been a plethoria of other food, and the crablike state of my limbs had convinced me it was time to go home anyway.

So thanks everyone for coming, thanks again to Marnie for her review, and hope to see you all soon! (Well, not all of you at the same time, but lots of you.)

 Frank’s report

We thought the food was OK.  We’ve been to Morocco before and the food is not really traditional Moroccan.  Besides, most of the restaurants that we ate at in Morocco had silverware.  They were a French colony for a while, you know.

I thought the bestilla was probably the best thing.  But the version we had in Morocco was made out of pigeon meat, not chicken (maybe they ran out of chickens) and just went hunting in the town square for the next available poultry.  The Moroccans, since they have a French influence, do make pretty damn good desserts, which was totally lacking at Marrakesh.

I think the restaurant is just kind of Disney-fied kind of place.  You can claim to go to a Moroccan restaurant but be safe.  It’s kind of fun, but not authentic at all.   It’s something I would take a bored out-of-town guest from fly-over territory to have them experience something “different”.  Grace and I would probably never go back, at least not for the food.  The belly dancer was pretty lousy, in my humble opinion.