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RESTAURANT REVIEW : A Feast to Sate a Potentate, Topped Off by Belly Dance

February 19, 1988|J.D. GOLD

If Palm Springs were in Morocco, most restaurants there would be like Marrakesh, all fancy rugs and draped fabrics and nasal desert Muzak droning softly in a labyrinth of arched-door dining rooms that could pass as the interior of a split-level ranch home. People go there for birthdays and for second dates and for a tourist experience not much less interesting than the Universal Studios tour down the road.

You recline cross-legged on a low-low banquette strewn with pillows around an elaborately inlaid table that is even lower. Vaguely crystal-shaped hanging lamps resemble the ones outside the Space Age Lodge, and gorgeous Islamic art hangs from the walls.

A waiter dressed something like a cross between a bellhop and an organ-grinder's monkey places a basin on the table, bathes your hands over it with warm water from a ewer, then has you dry them on a downsize terry-cloth bath towel. He hands you another towel to cover your lap. A waiter in striped pajamas comes over to discuss your meal, which is more or less set, except for the choice of entree. (He'll try to persuade everyone at the table to order the same thing--you don't have to). I have never seen a printed menu.

You start your dinner with harira , which tastes like sort of a lamb-based variation on the classic Greek egg-lemon soup . It is thick with tomato, lentils and strands of egg , tart with lemon, and spiked with herbs. You squeeze a little more lemon juice into the mixture to cut its richness, then sip it from the bowl. Utensils appear only with the main course.

The fezzed waiter carries out a vast platter mounded with salads: diced, spiced tomato and cucumber; marinated carrot slices; marinated eggplant, something like the Italian dish caponata , that tastes strongly of tomato paste. You scoop these up with a wedge of dense, anise-scented bread (drier than it should be) that arrives in a Flash Gordonesque straw capsule. It's slightly erotic to eat these soft, cool salads with your hands, then to lick the olive oil off your fingers--or off a friend's.

You finish, and you are brought a whole b'stilla, the pie that is the supreme dish of Moroccan cuisine. As the b'stilla appears, so does a curvy belly dancer. She cranks up the ululating taped oud music, strips off veils, and lewdly swirls around the tables, undulating. The same men who had looked half-asleep five minutes earlier lovingly tuck dollar bills into her G-string. A toddler wobbles along behind the dancer, fascinated, while her mother shakes her head in mock disgust.

You crack open the b'stilla and sneeze at a small cloud of powdered sugar and cinnamon that rises up from the filo-sheet crust. The sweet filling, chicken and almonds bound with egg, is still too hot to eat with your fingers, and the whole thing seems absurd, like something you might have made for yourself when you were four if you'd known how to cook. But b'stilla is delicious, and you find it pleasantly goofy to go mano a mano with the stuff even if the pie does always win. You could be draped in 10 towels; you will be showered with food, and the powdered sugar will always get onto your lap.

Although the b'stilla stuffs you fat as a potentate, several courses follow: first, perhaps, an exemplary skewer of grilled lamb with a smoky, fiery paste that's a distant relative of chipotle chile salsa ; then overpoweringly lemony roast chicken with olives; sweet, gamy lamb in a spicy honey syrup with dried fruits; hotly spiced rabbit roasted with ginger; good couscous; a big haunch of sea bass in tomato sauce.

Good as they are, you will have stuffed yourself so full by this point that their quality--or lack of it--is basically irrelevant.

Dessert is a bowl of fruit and nuts. A dry triangle of the pastry baklava is brought out with the mint tea, which is ceremoniously poured from arm's length. The ritual would be more impressive if the waiter got more of it in the glass.

Marrakesh, 13003 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 788-6354. Dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $33-$44.

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