Feb. 21 2014 05:39 PM

Familiar food with exotic differences in Hillcrest

Kous Kous’ b’stilla rolls
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

There's only one good reason not to order the b'stilla roll appetizer at Hillcrest's Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro & Lounge: It would be difficult for any meal to go uphill from there. This tapas-scale version of the classic Moroccan dish features filament-thin layers of phyllo-like dough wrapped around shredded saffron chicken, honey, cinnamon and ground almonds and sprinkled with a light dusting of powdered sugar. It's savory. It's sweet. It's heartbreakingly familiar and profoundly exotic. It is, in short, a microcosm of Moroccan cuisine.

Morocco may be on a different continent from Spain, but it's just eight miles away at the Strait of Gibraltar's narrowest point. Its cuisine, similarly, seems vaguely familiar yet profoundly mysterious. It's comfort food, but with a pronounced difference and a beguiling quality.

Morocco's cuisine was shaped by geography. The Berbers—descendants of the Carthaginians—were there when the Arabs arrived from the Middle East with their spices in tow. For the better part of a millennium, the Moors controlled parts of Spain, resulting in an exchange that shaped the cuisines of both lands. European powers vying for control of Morocco in the 19th century—France won out—left bits of their cuisine behind upon departure.

All of that history is evident at Kous Kous (3940 Fourth Ave.). The sweet mint tea, Morocco's national drink, speaks of those early Arab conquests, as does the look of the place, with its richly patterned fabrics and billowing textiles. The music bears the unmistakable stamp of Andalucía. So does the food.

Tagines are an example. This class of dish consists of spiced meats and vegetables, stewed or braised for long periods of time. Originally prepared—and often presented—in a shallow earthenware vessel with a conical top (essentially, an early slow cooker), this dish is Berber in origin but is now prepared using European-style techniques. 

The chicken tagine is one of Kous Kous' best main courses. After a caramelizing sear, dark-meat chicken is braised in garlic, ginger and a saffron sauce with olives and one of Moroccan cuisine's greatest ingredients: preserved lemons (with their sour and salty flavors but also a powerful dose of umami). Another good tagine is the vegetarian version, featuring bell peppers and tomatoes stuffed with sweet corn, rice and green beans in a tomato sauce. The Berber lamb-shank tagine was a disappointment. The meat was dry, the braising liquid sauce greasy and the green beans cooked to limp death.

The merguez—a spicy lamb sausage—served with squash, carrots and garbanzo beans over couscous with a ginger, garlic and butter sauce was excellent. As good as the sausage was, though, the highlight was the couscous. Instead of the coagulated mass that instant couscous tends toward, each grain of the ground semolina pasta was distinct and could be experienced—and enjoyed—individually. 

But it was all epilogue after that b'stilla roll. The familiar, the mysterious, the deliciously exotic flavors that are the mark of Morocco, culinarily and culturally, were all in that appetizer. A bite of that roll transports you half way around the world and just a little more than eight miles south of Gibraltar.

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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