The guidebooks warn against it: Don't hire a guide in Tangier. Don't eat in any restaurants there, they also caution. In fact, according to the guidebooks, Americans shouldn't even consider taking the ferry from the southern tip of Spain to the rocky northern coast of Morocco. Forget the beauty of it all. It is too unsafe. Dangerous. A death wish.
Anytime I'm told not to do something, I go ahead and do it, so we booked our passage for the two-and-a-half-hour ride and hopped aboard. After we docked we hired a guide who knew more American slang than we did; he chatted his way through Tangier's marketplace, with its piles of olives, spices, and lambs' heads. He ushered us through a Moroccan pita bakery, took us to the top of a Casbah (castle), and then led us to a spotless restaurant that was devoid of tourists, where we enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken roasted with lemon juice and couscous decorated with chickpeas, all of which we ate with our fingers. Finally he waited as we sipped mint tea in a government store laid floor-to-ceiling with the most beautiful, hand-looped silk rugs, one of which we would eventually ship back home. At the end of our two-month European and Mediterranean backpacking trip, we would rate that afternoon as one of our most cherished.
I can relive my trip -- or more precisely take a new one -- at Pompano Beach's Kasbah, a five-month-old Moroccan restaurant that resembles an elegant tent, with swags of brilliantly hued cloth affixed to the ceiling, tapestried walls, rugs on the floors, and stacks of pillows that serve as chairs. Mint tea is poured from a silver teapot. Utensils are not provided until the main course -- you use your fingers till then. And a belly dancer performs nightly. Restaurants that go to such extremes to achieve authenticity often come off seeming tacky or fake, but that simply isn't the case here. (Chef-proprietor Zakaria Tadlaoui, who uses family recipes, owned a similar restaurant in Vail, Colorado, for twelve years before relocating to Broward six months ago.)
The Kasbah serves a five-course, prix fixe dinner; you choose only your entree, which dictates the price of the meal. (Prices range from $19 to $29.) A server carefully guides first-time visitors through Moroccan dining traditions, first handing out a thick, white towel to drape over your shoulder and use for wiping your hands. Next he pours warm water over your hands from a silver samovar, a luxurious ritual that feels slightly decadent. Cleansed, you're ready to sip your first course straight from the bowl, a delicious lentil soup called harira. The thick puree was just steamy enough to be pleasant, releasing tantalizing curry-like flavors with each mouthful but neither too hot to drink rapidly nor too spicy to savor.
The second course also came with instructions. After setting down platters of chopped vegetable salad, potato salad, and carrot-raisin salad -- all garnished with shriveled, fruity black olives -- our waiter brought over a lidded woven basket.
"Cobra?" we guessed, as he displayed it.
"Smaller than that," he hinted.
He removed the lid to reveal aromatic chunks of freshly baked, honey-wheat bread. The idea, he explained, is to scoop up the various salads, which are meant to be shared, with the bread. Marinated in vinegar and olive oil, the chopped vegetables -- cucumbers, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes -- were our favorite. Potato salad was also good: vinegary, boiled, white potato slices accented with chopped red onion. The carrot-raisin salad, saved until last because of its sweet nature, comprised shredded carrots and plump dark raisins soaking in a combination of orange juice, orange blossom water, and cinnamon. Though I found this overpoweringly flowery at first, I acquired a taste for it after a few mouthfuls.
The next appetizer course, also meant to be shared, is called b'stella; it featured a large pastry, round like a pie but fluffier. Its delicate phyllo dough crust, dusted with confectioners' sugar, needed to be poked with a brave finger five or six times to let out the steam. After it cooled we were able to snatch off pieces and found it stuffed with shreds of Cornish hen, minced almonds, and cinnamon. If you're a vegetarian, be sure to inform your waiter. The meatless version was even better; an assortment of zucchini, carrots, bell peppers, and potatoes was coated in a zippy curry sauce before being sealed in the heat-saving pastry leaves -- a doubly searing experience.
In general Moroccan restaurants are considerate of vegetarians, and the Kasbah is no exception, offering three all-vegetable entrees. Zucchini, carrots, onions, bell peppers, potatoes, and chickpeas are served either plain over couscous, stewed with a ginger sauce called m'qualy, or drenched with m'hammer, a zesty paprika, garlic, and cumin sauce. This last preparation was slightly piquant and nicely balanced, combining notes of garlic and cumin. A garnish of green olives added some tart brininess and contrasting texture.
The same spices were featured in the fish tagine (stew) entree, which was like a Moroccan bouillabaisse. A fillet of tilapia, moist and mild, was draped with rings of bell peppers, onions, slices of zucchini, and a smattering of olives, and the broth was easily soaked up by the honeyed bread.
Another entree consisted of half a roasted Cornish hen nestled in the center of a pile of fluffy and firm couscous, the tiny grains of semolina also supporting a host of steamed vegetables, including zucchini and potatoes, as well as chickpeas and raisins. Lightly spiced and falling off the bones, the hen itself was delectable.
During certain times of the year, you might discover veal, hare, pheasant, or quail on the menu. No unusual game was offered the night we visited, but we didn't go away meatless. Though we passed up beef kebabs and beef tagine, we did choose two lamb dishes, both of which were satisfying. A simple roasted lamb -- two big boneless hunks and one shank (on the bone) -- was just a little dry but nonetheless tasty; it was served with a side of m'hammer. A dish of buttery rice colored with saffron was a good, palate-quieting partner. The other dish, lamb with honey and almonds, came sans starch. Rich, sticky, and sweet, this lamb was more tender, wonderful to eat between the b'stella appetizer and dessert.
The final course, a platter of fresh melon, pineapple, grapes, and orange slices -- again, to be shared -- was interspersed with pieces of yet another pastry, this one comprising (among other ingredients) chocolate, peaches, and grapes. The waiter also brought individual fruit cocktails, which seemed like the familiar canned kind with diced peaches, pears, grapes, and maraschino cherries, until we caught a whiff of the powerful orange blossom water that enhanced it. He also poured mint tea for everyone, a hot beverage some of my guests loved and some thought was reminiscent of boiled chewing gum wrappers -- a matter of taste, I imagine.
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The meal concluded not with the check (although it came eventually) but rather with another hand-washing ceremony. This time, after our hands were rinsed, the waiter produced two vials, one of orange blossom water, the other of rose water. He had us place our palms together and close our eyes, at which time he anointed us with the perfumed liquids. "Now touch your face and make a wish," he said.
I'm never one to pass on a wish, or on an authentic, honest experience, for that matter. Though some diners might find their server's attentions to be excessive and the slow, traditional meal a bit corny, we found them to be both educational and nostalgic. But keep in mind the dining lessons are necessary only on the first visit; after that, you'll very likely be treated like a regular who knows the drill. Of course that depends on whether or not my wish -- a long life for Kasbah -- comes true.
Kasbah. 420 N. Federal Hwy., Pompano Beach, 954-941-4277. Dinner nightly from 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight.
Couscous with Cornish hen
Lamb with honey and almonds