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Restaurants | First Impressions

Moroccan Food Simmers at the Modest, Lovely Mamounia

August 17, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

"Check out www.mamouniabh.com," a friend e-mailed me. "It's the Web site for a fancy new Moroccan restaurant in Beverly Hills." Sure enough, when I pointed my browser there, "Mamounia Authentic Moroccan Cuisine, an Experience You'll Never Forget!" showed up on my screen. It promised belly dancing and valet parking and did look fancy--if the photo showing the cooks and young owners, Mohemed and Saada Benkhay, dressed in Moroccan attire amid low sofas and cushions, was accurate. What interested me more were the dishes listed as entree selections on the prix fixe menu: along with brochette and chicken with lemon, I noted rabbit with garlic and paprika, marinated grilled quail and fish tagine.

That got me in my car one night heading down Robertson Boulevard. Mamounia turned out to be not the glitzy establishment conjured up by the Web site, but a modest and lovely restaurant with gracious service and delicious, home-style Moroccan cooking.

The meal began with fragrant rounds of freshly baked bread and bowls of harira, a mildly spicy lentil soup spiked with lemon. Then came a platter of three or four vegetable salads followed by my favorite Moroccan dish, bestila, a chicken, egg and almond tart showered with powdered sugar. Traditionally, it's made with warka, a thin pastry made by bouncing a ball of dough off a hot griddle. In this country, filo dough is usually substituted. To my surprise, at Mamounia, the pastry was the real thing.

On a quiet weeknight, we had a choice of four entrees, far fewer than the Web menu promised but sensible under the circumstances since most Moroccan dishes are prepared ahead in order to build in layers of subtle flavors. Chicken with preserved lemon (pickled in salt, brine and spices until the rind and the flesh become soft and silky) is wonderful, as is the tender lamb with honey and sesame seeds.

Dessert is a plate of Moroccan cookies stuffed with almond paste and glasses of sweet Moroccan mint tea.

When the bill came to $54 for two, including two glasses of Moroccan wine, we were astonished. It's hard to find such tasty cooking for that price anywhere, but in Beverly Hills, it's a small miracle.

BE THERE

Mamounia, 132 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 360-7535. Open Tuesday-Sunday for dinner only. Seven-course prix fixe menu, $18.50-$27, includes soup, salad, appetizer, choice of entree and dessert. Valet parking.

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