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RESTAURANTS : Moroccan Restaurant Has Hand-to-Mouth Ambiance

January 29, 1988|Max Jacobson

The oldest utensils for eating are the fingers, and in many parts of the world they are still the only ones. Most Indian and Arab gourmets will tell you that food doesn't even taste good unless it is eaten with the fingers, a view with which I feel a great deal of sympathy. I remember losing an argument once on that very subject. My adversary just happened to be my mother.

Eating with the fingers is not as elemental as one might think, though. The etiquette is governed by strict rules. Hand washing before meals is absolutely de rigueur . The right hand is used exclusively, with the thumb and forefinger being manipulated like chopsticks. It's considered greedy and unmannerly to use extra fingers.

The Moroccan table follows the best of these traditions (with one minor wrinkle, the long, curved wooden spoons often employed for soup or couscous ). Morocco is on the Western edge of the Arab world and its cuisine is full of Turkish, Berber and French influences. A meal in a Moroccan restaurant usually consists of five or more courses and is a wonderfully sensual experience--at least if you like eating with your hands.

This all came back to me when my old girlfriend, Marcia, came to town with her husband. She is terribly, terribly proper, the kind of woman who eats ribs with a knife and fork. When we were going together, she tried in vain to make me be the same way. When I got her recent call I had a sudden flash of brilliance: "We'll eat Moroccan," I thought, "and broaden her cultural perspective." The thought of making her squirm a bit never even occurred to me.

Marrakesh opened in the mid-'70s when Moroccan restaurants were springing up all over California. It has been a Newport Beach institution ever since. The restaurant is owned and operated by Ali Rabbani, a Moroccan with a great love for king and country; pictures of Morocco's King Hassan II are all over the restaurant, which looks like a giant tent. The walls are made of colorful canvas and the ceilings of billowing cloth. You lounge on raised cushions while you eat your meal off low tables of inlaid wood. This is not a restaurant for a business meeting.

Before your meal at Marrakesh, a waiter sporting a red fez will perform the ritual hand washing. The first course, harira , a rich broth of lentils, eggplant, roasted peppers and carrot, with a pinch of cumin and coriander, can be drunk directly from the bowl. "Isn't it delicious?" Marcia asked nervously.

Soon after, the waiter reappeared with a large dish containing three colorful salads, diced cucumber, eggplant dip and honeyed carrot. "You scoop them up with the bread," the waiter instructed, referring to the khubz , anise-flavored flat bread served from a Berber basket. Marcia sat there stiffly. "I just can't eat with my fingers," she said, watching as her husband and I attacked the salads. "C'mon," said her husband, "try." He handed her a piece of bread stuffed with the eggplant. "H'm," she said, "this is great." Before long she was gingerly placing slices of carrot into her mouth.

By the time the b'stilla arrived, my image of Marcia was starting to crumble. B'stilla is an egg and chicken-stuffed pie sprinkled with almonds, flavored with cinnamon and topped with confectioners sugar. Even when I told her that it is supposed to be made with pigeon instead of chicken, she didn't bat an eye. Marcia was eating almost nonchalantly now.

I knew my plan was going to backfire. She was having the time of her life. She had no trouble at all with kotban , pieces of lamb shish kebab marinated in coriander, cumin, garlic, and virgin olive oil, which she pulled from the sword with authority. "I didn't know you ate lamb," I said, remembering the time she embarrassed me at a Greek wedding by asking for plain broiled fish.

When the main courses arrived, she was the one with all the appetite left. She swooned over the rabbit with prunes, a dish she would have punched me for mentioning 10 years ago, and she even praised the quail with olives, a dish that I found bland and indistinguishable from any other form of poultry. No one was thrilled with the lemon chicken, just a big potted chicken with a few pieces of lemon rind and boiled almonds scattered around the plate, but we all liked the couscous , a steamed grain dish piled with vegetables boiled in lamb stock. Dessert at Marrakesh is simple: a basket of fruit and nuts, a honey-dripping, Turkish-style sweet and mint tea poured from above your head into a long, thimble-shaped glass. Marcia actually licked the honey off her fingers and let out a girlish giggle.

Come to think of it, Mother never liked her very much.

Marrakesh is reasonably priced, with all-inclusive dinners running between $16.50 and $22.50. There is a surprisingly nice wine list with a lot of variety. I recommend going with at least two or three people--then you can taste just about everything on the menu.

MARRAKESH

1100 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

(714) 645-8384.

Open nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards accepted.

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