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Oasis in Long Beach for Down to Earthenware Food

Oasis isn't like most of our Moroccan restaurants, which are straight from Disney World.

May 08, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oasis has the coolest sign in Long Beach, a neon Op Art number in green, red and blue depicting a date palm swaying in the sunset.

Splashy as the sign is, though, the cafe itself is no bigger than the average living room, with space for just seven tables, a tiny kitchen and a foyer too small for Paul Prudhomme to walk through. At three of the tables, set on a small wooden platform built into a side wall, you recline on colorful cushions instead of sitting on chairs. That's one hint of North Africa; others are the white shrouds suspended from the ceiling and the soft adobe-like ochre hue of the walls.

Oasis specializes in Moroccan food, but it's not like most of our Moroccan restaurants, which are straight from Disney World: excessive decor, themed dinners, belly dancing and ear-splitting music. One thing, apart from the good cooking, that distinguishes Oasis is the fact that it may be the first Moroccan restaurant in the Southland that is also a neighborhood restaurant, a hangout for locals who arrive on foot. I'd call that a step in the right direction not only for the Long Beach dining scene but for the future of Moroccan cuisine in California.

The Oasis experience begins with the North African hand-washing ritual. The waitress will bring out a silver basin and then pour water from a long spout onto your waiting hands. However, you aren't obliged to eat with your hands, Moroccan-fashion. All tables are set with knives and forks.

Nearly all our Moroccan restaurants force you to order some sort of multi-course feast, a soup-to-mint tea affair that requires about two hours and a good appetite. You can't be a neighborhood restaurant on that basis; at Oasis, everything is a la carte.

So if you want to come here and order, say, a harira and be on your way, that's fine. As if you could stop with that once you catch that fragrance of cumin, coriander and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen, though. The harira is a wonderful thick soup of lamb and orzo pasta with an egg and lemon flavoring, making it like a Greek avgolemono made with lamb instead of chicken.

One appetizer is an earthenware dish of salads: cuminy marinated eggplant, carrots perfumed with mint and cinnamon, and a tomato and cucumber salad--all three cold and refreshing. Another appetizer, "hot cigars," is two Cohiba-sized pastries filled with spicy ground beef. The most famous Moroccan dish, bestila (spelled b'stilla on this menu), is the centerpiece of the appetizers. This large pie--made of filo, filled with chicken, ground almonds and scrambled eggs, the whole thing dusted with sugar and cinnamon--is wonderful, flaky and complex.

Another nice thing about this place is the way it cooks so many lamb, chicken and seafood casseroles in earthenware tajines with conical lids that are lifted off ceremoniously when the dish is presented. Each of the stews has homey, rustic flavors. Tajine bidaoui, for instance, is braised chicken, so tender it falls apart at a touch, smothered in onion, green olives, chopped pickled lemons and potatoes.

The fish tajine could be sea bass or salmon, depending on the evening, the fish cooked a point with carrots, olives and a fiery red sauce called shermula. Tajine kefta is a dish of mildly spiced meatballs in rich tomato sauce, topped with whole eggs, which cook in the tajine.

And let's not forget Morocco's national dishes, mechoui and couscous. Oasis' mechoui (here spelled meshoui) is a lamb shank roasted over glowing embers; it ends up juicy and tender with a dark brown crust. As for couscous, you can get it with a choice of braised lamb or chicken and further garnished with garbanzo beans, carrots, zucchini, potatoes and onions.

At the end of the meal, there are the almond-stuffed, honey-drenched pastry triangles called breiwat or a sweet called Casablanca: orange slices flavored with cinnamon, powdered sugar and a touch of orange blossom water. If you want, you can have sugary mint tea.

No, they do not pour the tea from dizzy heights, like our more showy Moroccan restaurants. In fact, you pour it yourself from any old height you want; just the way, one suspects, it is done in small neighborhood restaurants very, very far away from the east side of Long Beach.

BE THERE

Oasis, 272 Redondo Ave., Long Beach. (562) 987-4145. Open for dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Sunday and Monday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Beer and wine only. Street parking. Takeout available. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, $23-$37. What to Get: harira, chicken bestila, hot cigars, mechoui, tajine bidaoui, tajine kefta, breiwat.

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