Exotic Sublime
[from May 2007 issue]

It's not often you finish a meal and want to hug the chef. But that's how I reacted after licking up the last drop of the dark, sweet, minty tea at the new Marrakesh Palace on P Street, in the Dupont West neighborhood. It may be a cliché, but stepping inside is a little like crossing an invisible exotic threshold: pulsating music, gleaming brass and copper cooking utensils and samovars, gauzy curtains, and apricot and sand colors connote someplace other than Washington. All that's immediately missing from the setting is a dark-eyed beauty belly dancing, but if you time your visit right, even she will be there.

If it's not crowded -- and lunchtime doesn't seem to be -- ask to sit on one of the banquettes, where you can settle onto plush cushions covered in a colorful silken fabric and admire the bright colors of the carpets covering much of the floor space. All the artwork and drama of the overhead fixtures simply heighten the effect of having slipped across a border.

The setting acts as prelude to the knock-out food, as carefully and artfully prepared as any Moroccan mosaic. First to arrive is a precursor to the main event: enjoy the small dish of olive varieties that are paired with a hot, round loaf of whole wheat bread. Spicy, garlicky, and slightly salty, the olives rest in just enough marinade for getting mopped up with chunks of bread.

By that time, you've probably placed your order. Too many menu options may leave you dazed, but start with one of the country's classics, the chicken bastilla. Often this intricate baked pastry of cinnamon-seasoned shredded chicken ends up in a crust that is too thick or too soggy. Yet this kitchen's version -- probably slightly altered to serve American tastes -- comes as a tightly wrapped and delicate filo package with a savory-sweet-cinnamony chicken mixture that is dense, almost pastelike. Dusted with confectioners' sugar, the bastilla is probably large enough to share with two, but I can guarantee you won't want to part with a bite. And as the woman at the adjacent table was doing -- and she made a point of noting she'd visited Morocco often -- it's correct to use fingers and bread as utensils.

Your best bet is to come with a group of friends. That way you can share several of the traditional main courses to get the full impact of how well Moroccans dine. There seems to be nothing spare or skimpy about a typical meal, so skipping past the couscous or one of the kabobs seems irreverent. But I settled on one of the tagines, or stews. After all, how could anyone pass up the lamb barkouk, or lamb cubes braised with prunes and garnished with toasted almonds and sesame seeds. It arrives in a covered clay pot, and when the waiter lifts off the lid, curls of fragrant steam hit you.

Lamb and prunes -- an unusual combination but one that works well -- have evidently simmered in a flavorful sauce that is about as rich and filling as eating six bowls of ice cream. All this, too, could be easily eaten with fingers, and dunking in the bread ensures that you don't leave much sauce behind. You may feel sated, but asking for a doggy bag seems tacky.

Just when you can't think of taking another spoonful, and wonder if you can manage dessert, whatever it may be, the waiter brings a glass of hot sweet minty tea, a perfect wrap-up to the meal. With this comes a gratis plate of delicate baked pastries -- buttery, sugary, and exceedingly rich. The calorie-challenged may pass up the serving, but anyone who loves sticky treats will want to sample the syrupy, cigar-shaped pastries that are filled with what must be crushed almonds and plenty of sugar.

If you are more into after-hours entertainment rather than feasting on divine food, you can head upstairs to the Pasha Lounge, where apparently DJs, disco, and big crowds go on and on in true nightclub fashion. Or you can stay downstairs, cast aside the cynic in you that questions how authentic may be the food and the mood, and just dine, dine, dine.

Marrakesh Palace 2147 P St., NW; tel., 775-1882; www.marrakeshpalace.com. Lunch & Dinner every day: 11:30am-10:30pm (hours for the upstairs Pasha Lounge differ). Entrée price range: $13.95-$29.95.

Copyright (c) 2007 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107 “fair use”).

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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