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STYLE / Restaurants : RIGHT AT HOME

June 11, 1995|S. Irene Virbila

Driving up Westwood Boulevard late one night, when almost everything else is shut tight, I pass a small building with painted blue and yellow Moorish arches. A man wearing a djellaba, the traditional Moroccan robe, stands framed in the doorway, waving to the last of his guests as they step into their car. It is Michel Ohayon, owner of the 17-year-old Moroccan restaurant Koutoubia. As I head home, I can't help remembering my last meal at this enchanting restaurant--and wishing I could have spent a relaxed evening there instead of shouting across the table at yet another brash new Italian trattoria .

Koutoubia is the real thing, a Moroccan restaurant where the cuisine isn't held hostage to a sideshow for tourists. Morocco, after all, boasts the most intriguing cooking in all of Africa and its cuisine is one of the best in the world. But it has never been much of a restaurant culture; the best food has always been found in the home. And that's precisely what is so appealing about Koutoubia. Ohayon's mother, Gilberte, is in the kitchen, and what you get is very close to home cooking.

Ohayon greets even first-time guests as if they were visiting his home, warmly clasping your hand and leading you to a secluded table in a corner of the small dining room. The walls are covered in vivid brocades that recall the bright colors of Morocco. Banquettes are enticing, comfortable; tables are of beaten brass or inlaid wood.

The waiter will hand you a towel--not the scalding hot little square you get at sushi bars--but a big, fluffy bath towel. And then he'll pour lukewarm water from a chased silver pitcher over your hands into a silver basin, just as Gilberte Ohayon is preparing to send out the first in a series of dishes, all served family-style.

Fresh-baked bread scented with anise and sesame is served warm from a tapestry-covered basket with a tall conical lid. It is delicious. With it comes a platter of little salads: sliced, boiled carrots doused with cumin and tomato sauce, crimson beets perfumed with cumin, roasted peppers slicked with good olive oil and lemon. There maybe a salad of new red potatoes or fresh fennel, too. But the centerpiece is always the glorious tchoutchouka, a "cooked salad" of sweet red and yellow peppers, green chiles, eggplant, garlic and lots of tomato cooked down for hours until the texture is almost a jam. This, like a few other dishes here, comes from the Sephardic Jewish tradition.

Sometimes the salads are preceded by savory cigar-shaped pastries with a tender beef filling spiced with cumin and cayenne; triangular filo packets are stuffed with beef redolent of nutmeg and saffron. But they are always followed by bestila, one of the glories of Moroccan cuisine.

Ohayon himself brings to the table the famous poultry pie, a gold round topped with fluttery, fine leaves of filo. The recipe is an old family one: chicken cooked on a bed of onions, parsley and cilantro, then boned and simmered with beaten egg until the egg absorbs the juices. Blistering hot from the oven, the sugar-dusted savory pastry is irresistible; nobody can wait until it cools, and we all end up burning our fingers.

For the fish course, his mother might make another Sephardic dish called poisson du vendredi soir (Friday night's fish), which is cooked ahead so that any leftovers can be eaten on Saturday Sabbath. Hers is sea bass, cooked atop sun-dried anaheim chiles to give it a smoky edge and topped with finely chopped parsley and cilantro.

From time to time, Ohayon will sit down at the table and, in as relaxed and kindly a manner as that of the host at a family dinner party, explain how a dish is prepared or simply visit a moment. He tells us that if we call ahead next time, he could have a whole striped bass prepared with tomatoes, potatoes, lemon and fresh herbs. It's a hard call between that and sauteed sea bass paired with a cool Moroccan "salsa" of chopped tomatoes, hot peppers, garlic, capers and finely diced preserved lemon. The silky pickle of lemons, one of the peculiarities of Moroccan cuisine, is cured in a powerful brine studded with cinnamon sticks and whole spices.

Two quivering little mounds of custardy calves' brains, cooked with a showering of parsley and cilantro, sweet paprika and a pinch of cumin and lemon, are astonishingly good. "In Morocco, brains are a great luxury; people pay up to $30 or $40 a kilo for them," he says. "But here, it's hard to get people to eat them."

As for couscous, his mother's is the lightest I've ever had--soaked and steamed and fluffed repeatedly, flavored with saffron water and a touch of olive oil--the long-awaited star of the meal. Normally, she serves it with a stew of mixed vegetables. Or you can have what I adore: a sweet couscous studded with walnuts and dried fruit as the final course.

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