Morocco is a country of exotic ingredients — mint and olives from Meknes, Fez's lemons and oranges, saffron from Taliouine — and haunting preparations — tagines studded with lamb and dates, couscous dishes jeweled with pomegranates and nuts, soothing mint teas and sweet/savory cinnamon chicken bastilla.
Sounds good, doesn't it? Sadly, there have been precious few places in the Tampa Bay area in which to sample the goods.
To change that, Philippe and Nassira Coriou opened Marrakech Restaurant in August, utterly transforming the space that once was Koba's Japanese Restaurant. Traditional Moroccan furniture was custom-made in Casablanca; chef Youssef Tassi hails from that port city as well. The restaurant is a labor of love, named for the city in which the Corious met.
It's intimate and inviting, Philippe and Nassira flitting around the cozy room tending to guests. Gauzy curtains and small, low tables make it seem more like teleporting into a Moroccan home. Traditional but hard as a rock, pretty upholstered banquettes line one wall. (Because they are too deep for short-legged diners, women may feel more comfortable sitting in the chairs opposite the banquettes.)
A typical Moroccan meal begins with an array of hot and cold salads, followed by a tagine (a rich stew made in a clay pot with a domed lid) and then a pile of couscous heaped with meats and vegetables, followed up with a sweet mint tea. These are good guidelines for navigating Marrakech's menu; a family-style approach is the best way to try a dab of everything.
I would say that the prices are high for the portion sizes — one night's carrot charmoula ($6.99) and eggplant zaalouk ($6.99) were hardly more than a half-dozen bites each. That said, the flavors were lovely, the former a balance of cumin, garlic, lemon and cilantro, the latter a mashed eggplant dish with just enough lemon and exotic spices to make even a good baba ghanouj seem pedestrian.
One of the Moroccan national dishes, a soup called harira ($4.99) that traditionally breaks the fast at Ramadan, is at once nurturing and surprising. Garbanzo beans, lentils, pasta and diced beef (that's the nurturing part) are gussied up with saffron, ginger and cilantro and topped with hardboiled egg (all that is the surprising part). It's gorgeous, as is a vegetable couscous ($14.99) at the center of which a whole artichoke heart cradles petite peas, surrounded by sweet roasted butternut squash balancing out savory garbanzo beans. (The broth of the vegetable stew tasted like a super-rich chicken broth, so vegetarians should indicate their needs.)
Braised lamb shank and Cornish hen feature prominently, the tender, musky lamb paired most eloquently with sweet dried figs ($19.99), the hen best served when paired with the dynamic duo of olives and lemons ($17.99; the timid eater will find the Cornish hen with fries, also $17.99, most comforting).
Nassira Coriou hails from Morocco, but Philippe is from France, which may explain the reliance on fancy little French desserts, cylinders of spongecake and mousses with jaunty chocolate garnishes (all $6.99). I'd like to see crunchy Moroccan almond cookies and the like to go with the wonderful glass mugs of pale green mint tea. Still, South Tampa scores big points for nabbing a purveyor of this exotic North African cuisine.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.