Kous Kous3940 Fourth Ave. No. 110Hillcrest619-295-5560www.kouskousrestaurant.com
It started around a dining table, long since cleared. The conversation had turned to desert-island dishes—you know, the ones that float your boat above all others. We were each counting down our top five. I'd listed eel on rice, mac-and-cheese, five-spice braised pork, b'stilla. A friend stopped me: “Wait, what's that?” A b'stilla, I told her is “just one of the coolest foods on the planet.” The perfect union of savory and sweet, a b'stilla is a Moroccan pie, comprising many sheets of thin, flaky pastry (filo dough is the Western approximation) baked around a filling of stewed, spiced, minced chicken bound together with egg and layered with cinnamon and ground almond sweetened with orange-flower water.
I had my first b'stilla at Marrakesh restaurant in the '80s, when it was near the Sports Arena and I was not yet a tween. We'd ordered the set menu, and when the b'stilla came out as the third course, I was awestruck. Decorated with a lattice pattern of cinnamon and powdered sugar, it looked like a present and smelled of warm, buttery pie.
When my mom told me that the dessert-looking marvel was actually dinner—and that I could eat it with my hands—it was love. During subsequent dinners, she'd allow me to commandeer the b'stilla and I'd sit cross-legged on a pile of pillows, slowly savoring every last flake.
So, I was pretty sure what I wanted to eat the night I gave my friend the choice between Kous Kous, a Moroccan restaurant in Hillcrest, and another restaurant across the street. In my mind I was chanting “b'stilla, b'stilla.” He came through, and we headed to the Fourth Avenue restaurant, located below street level, down a short flight of stairs in a space filled with hanging colored-glass lanterns and draped fabric. There's enough ornamentation to make it seem like a special, far-away place, though they dispense with the more theme-y elements that you might have experienced at other Moroccan restaurants: There are no belly dancers, and that's just fine with me—I don't need anyone's hips gyrating near my food.
We were seated near the coziest, canopied corner of the restaurant, with a good view of the TV showing The African Queen with Bogart and Hepburn.
Lots of diners around us were drinking sangria, but we opted for a bottle of Moroccan wine, a red blend of European varietals with soft tannins and nice fruit. We started with a sampler platter of four vegetarian appetizers that comes with a basket of warm pita bread. The standouts were the cumin-flavored eggplant dip called brania, and khizzou, a sweet mash of caramelized carrots with ginger and garlic. Sautéed spinach with black olives is made extra special by bits of preserved lemon rind, deliciously chewy, salty and sharp.
Our waitress explained that the b'stilla used to come in the traditional pie but now is served as individual cigar-shaped pieces. Though it looked unfamiliar, the flavor and texture were there—my friend's eyes widened as he took his first bite, feeling delicate crunch of the filo and tasting the novel combo of powdered sugar and spiced chicken.
By that point, we were so full that we opted to share a main course—a lamb shank cooked until sticky and soft in a sauce of honey, dried fruit and ras el hanout, a North African spice blend. The fluffy couscous that's served on the side was topped with stewed raisins and chickpeas.
Our meal just about finished, my attention shifted back to the movie, and I got a little dreamy, thinking of Bogie and me in a steamboat, pointed toward some deserted island off the East African coast. We'd for sure bring b'stilla.