The Dying Art of Authenticity:
Immortal at Marrakesh
By Rebecca Wheeler
Turning left onto a nondescript section of New York Avenue in North West Washington, D.C, I’m concerned that the restaurant website’s indication for “Valet Parking Only” must’ve been a farce— or else, an extreme desire to avoid D.C parking somehow blurred my vision of reality. But sure enough, illegally parked in front of 619 with the double flashers broadcasting my uncertainty, I’m greeted by a little tap on the window and a curt nod from a dark-skinned man holding a money clip, signifying that I should surrender the keys; indeed, I’ve arrived at the unique and original Marrakesh Restaurant for a little “taste of Morocco,” in celebration of my mother’s birthday.
The building’s façade looks unimpressive from the street, a dull gray building that blends into surrounding row homes and convenience stores—strange, considering theaccolades the restaurant has acquired for ambiance and décor (I looked up the place beforehand, for fear that “ethnic food for Mom’s birthday” in Big Sister’s terms might be a little too ethnic for sissy Little Sissy). After knocking on the front door, as instructed, however, I begin to understand the mystique surrounding Marrakesh: Washington D.C’s “authentically ethnic”, reservation-only secret gem that many imitate, but few actually experience.
A bejeweled female usher, dressed in vibrant Moroccan garb, appears in the doorway and swiftly beckons us forward into a circular parlor, which could easily have come from a scene in Casablanca. The golden, scarlet, and deep purple mosaic floors reflect the dim lighting and create an intimate atmosphere, worlds away from the street outside. The staff members, all dressed-the-part, hover, as if waiting for their queue, while the remaining guests of my mother’s birthday dinner trickle in, a few at a time.
A costumed and thickly accented waitresses, wearing a crown of intricately wrapped fabric, notifies our group that it is time to be seated. With a theatrical sweep of her arms, she leads us into an extensively cushioned and cave-like dining room, where we settle into one of the many alcoves of couches placed around a circular table. She distributes colored hand towels to the group and explains the meal: seven courses, belly dancing, and no utensils, she tells us.
All twenty hands in all seven courses.
Authenticity aside, the fact that this place has managed to remain open despite Health Codes and Food Inspectors since 1982 is an impressive feat.
I guess that explains the incognito portico …
That same thought must’ve occurred to my mother because our turbaned waitress has returned bearing a carafe of Moroccan wine, by request of the Birthday Girl (Birthday Girl rarely drinks).
She has also brought the first course: a trio of warm “salads,” including stewed eggplants in tomato sauce, cucumbers with bell peppers and herbs, and roasted carrots with coriander. In addition, we’re given a large chunk of bread to operate as serving spoon, plate, fork, and napkin.
The well-seasoned vegetable-grain combo reveals strong ties to the Mediterranean, a cousin region to Moroccan cuisine, along with classical African and Middle Eastern fares.
When the second course arrives, I am again daunted by the ethnic potential before me; the “National Dish of Morocco” lies in the middle of the table, almost entirely covering its surface. Chicken B’stella (also known as Bastilla or Pastilla) is a sweet and savory pie, stuffed with shredded chicken, egg, and almond, and topped with cinnamon, cardamom, and powdered sugar on a phyllo crust.
Despite the questionable mix of flavors present in the dish, the rich aroma and sugar-encrusted shell draw my curious hands forward, in a ritualistic motion with the others.
Boy, oh boy, it’s Willy Wonka’s dream… but better. It’s dinner and desert wrapped into one buttery, flaky package, without the risk of becoming a blueberry upon consumption.
The next course, several very large roasted chickens with lemon and olives, comes in conjunction with the belly dancing show. The already dim room fades almost entirely to black, as the dancer mounts a temporary stage that has been pushed to the center of the dining room. Bollywood-esque music cues the sultry dance, her golden see-through Harem pants and matching belly shirt undulating to the beat of her finger-cymbals.
Our group expresses mixed-feelings on the necessity of the dancer’s “seductive movements,” but the show does not deter us from eating the tender and juicy chicken in the dark. We finish the entire dish, leaving only bones and gristle.
When the thirty-minute segment ends and the lights return to normal, our waitress announces the fourth course, either a marinated Berber beef shish kebab or a tagine of lamb with honey-almonds. Few of us red-meat-eaters but all of us nut-enthusiasts, we choose the latter.
Sure enough, the marinated almonds that dot the dish are addictive—swollen with juices and coated in honey.
Another Moroccan classic, the fifth course is couscous Grand Atlas topped with chickpeas, vegetables, and raisins. The starchy vegetables are laced with butter, giving them a creamy texture; the raisins, however, add sweetness without weight, leaving the taste buds with an impression of light indulgence.
Highlighting both sweet and savory tastes, the platter represents a common flavor fusion in Moroccan cuisine.
Thankfully for my bursting stomach, the sixth “course” is merely a basket of mixed fruit, meant to cleanse the palette, not encourage gluttony. The whole table decides to hold off for the grand finale: a dessert of sweet mint tea and Baklava.
A famous dessert across many cuisines, the sticky phyllodough pastry is filled with chopped pistachios and layered with sugary honey syrup. After a quick rendition of “Happy Birthday” led by the staff, we dive into our pastries, filling the last remaining spaces in our groaning guts.
After two hours and seven courses of constant eating, most of us are unable to finish a shot-glass-full of peppermint tea. The evening has been extensive and packed with gastronomic surprises, but I leave Marrakesh Restaurant with a smile; I am 100% certain that I have just experienced the most authentic “taste of Morocco” available in our nation’s capital.