634 Pearl St.
It's that scene in the movie-the one when the free-spirited romantic lead drags the uptight, lovably neurotic protagonist to the dimly lit ethnic restaurant, where they sit cross-legged on the floor and eat with their hands. Food and sparks fly, and happily-ever-afters ensue. I'll bet you didn't know that every one of those scenes was filmed right here in San Diego, at Marrakesh in La Jolla, to be exact.
OK, that's a bald-faced lie, but they could have been. From the intricately draped fabric ceiling, the low-seated couches and cushions, the strictly hands-on menu and vaguely uncomfortable belly-dancing show, this place has the romance thing covered.
My friend Whitney and I arrived early, when sunlight was still streaming through the windows and families and older couples still occupied the restaurant. A while later, the lights dimmed and the ambiance shifted into a more fitting setting for the richly flavored feast set before us.
Once comfortably lounging and drinks ordered, our sweetly smiling waiter gave us a primer on holding out our hands to be washed in warm, scented rose water. We chose our entrees: traditional lemon chicken and the highly touted honeyed lamb. At $24.95 per person, the progression of flavors, textures and spices that followed was a bargain by anyone's standards. The starter, a delicious vegetable lentil soup, Harira, was served at exactly the right temperature for sipping from small ceramic bowls. It took me a while to identify the predominant flavor as cilantro, only because my San Diegan taste buds are accustomed to cilantro overpowering my hapless taco shop fare. In this new forum, it was the perfect compliment to the tomato-based broth.
Next came the salads, a trio of traditional Moroccan vegetarian delights, served with fresh baked bread for dipping. Of the three-a cool cucumber-tomato medley, perfectly cooked herbed carrots and marinated sautéed eggplant-the latter jumped out as my immediate favorite. Tender and immensely flavorful, it renewed my faith in the oft-scorned purple veggie.
The next course was a bit of a head-scratcher, definitely the weakest link of the evening. Called Bastilla, the baked filo dough encased a combination of chicken, eggs, almonds and spices. What really stumped us, though, were the very liberal dusting of powdered sugar and the layer of cinnamon that was sprinkled on the top, roughly in the shape of a hand. Moroccan food for dummies? Surely by this time the average diner has figured out that no utensils are allowed, and don't need the additional signage to help them out. The sugar and cinnamon didn't seem to compliment the crumbly, savory filling, and the filo dough was difficult to manage with fingers. Flaky crumbs, bits of egg and chicken and white and brown powder were everywhere before we finally gave up. In any case, we were starting to get full, and the main course hadn't even arrived yet.
Arrive it did, just a few short minutes later, and worth the wait. The portions were generous, given the variety and quantity of food we'd already been served. The lemon chicken was moist and delicately flavored, surrounded by a pool of pale yellow sauce studded with whole green olives and preserved lemon peel. The dish accentuated each element, stripping the lemon and olives of any trace of bitterness. The chicken was cooked exactly right, infused throughout with citrus and herbs.
I ordered the lamb because I hadn't had the best experiences with it in the past and wanted to try a new take it. Well, hello Dolly, consider me converted! The honeyed lamb, with its rich sauce, moist, tender meat and garnish of stewed golden raisins and dried plums, was one of the most delicious things to cross my lips in recent memory.
The fall of night brought with it a shift in atmosphere-candles now flickered over several couples and a 20-something-strong birthday gathering. The cuddle-conducive seating arrangement started to remind me once again that, yes, I'm still single, but my wayward thoughts were soon replaced with the arrival of dessert-and the belly dancer.
The final course of flaky baklava and gently sweetened mint tea were quickly deposed of, leaving us in the somewhat disconcerting dilemma of lounging in the dimly lit room with nothing to do but avoid eye contact with the gyrating performer. She shook her skirt and waved her scarf, all the while making the rounds and avoiding upending the servers with her shimmying hips. Maybe if we'd still been eating, maybe if we'd been sitting at actual tables, then just maybe I would have been able to shake the feeling that we'd switched movies, from Along Came Polly to Striptease. In any case, when the dollar bills started coming out, we made our exit.