Restaurant Review: Marrakech Restaurant

In both presentation and flavor, Marrakech's food feels like simple home cooking, the kind of thing you'd eat at a North African friend's house, just to get a feel for their childhood table. Little complexity. Little power. Little steps toward introducing Tampa's diners to an unfamiliar cuisine.

You wouldn't expect the food to be drab after you walk into the place, however. The dining room is decked in bright but earthy colors, with big and beautiful hexagonal stone tables set on massive bases and surrounded by backless stools and banquettes lined with colorful cushions. Gorgeous, but troublesome.

Sliding into the bench seating and finding a comfortable position takes special care -- those impressive tables take up an equally impressive amount of your legroom. The stools are easier, but require a stiff posture foreign to most Americans these days. But hey, I'm willing to pay that price for the atmosphere.

For the food, however, I'm not so sure. A meal at Marrakech does have some highlights, like chicken pastilla covered in flaky pastry scattered with cinnamon-scented confectioners sugar and stuffed with a perfect balance of tender ground meat and sweet onions. Almonds scattered around the plate provide crunch and a burst of richness, the nuts so much better than our own California versions you'll wonder if you'll ever buy American again.

I'd return for that pastilla again and again, but all I can muster is a shrug for the rest of the food. Harira -- Morocco's national vegetable soup, laced with tomatoes and chick peas -- is too thick and one dimensional to act as a gateway to to the rest of that country's food. Roasted eggplant slices marinated in olive oil and spices (called zaalouk) is tasty enough, and boiled potato hunks coated in charmoula -- think potato salad with mayo infused by lemon, cumin, cilantro and garlic -- are capable, but none of it will stoke a fire for Moroccan cuisine.

Which, it turns out, is fine: The rest of the meal won't push anyone out of their comfort zone. Piles of fluffy couscous are topped by gigantic hunks of stewed carrots, potatoes, zucchini and sweet potatoes, some of it cooked until soft, some of it well past that point. Order the couscous with lamb and you'll find a nicely tender section of bland shank. The couscous comes with a side of brothy sauce; make sure to go ahead and douse the dish with the stuff, which will add the proper seasoning. Even so, with little of the heady spices and herbs of north African cooking to be found you'll be hard pressed to differentiate your entree from straight-up American pot roast,

Same goes for tagine selections that should be loaded with flavors that intermingle in every bite of rich stew. These, however, feel like the ingredients were all cooked separately and then assembled on the clay plate at the last second, the meat, vegetables, dried fruit and nuts all distinct entities barely tied together with a gravy of reduced braising liquid. Everything is cooked fine, but it's a motley assortment of tastes that never unite.

Except for onion soup, seafood bisque, and a seared foie gras appetizer, desserts are where XXX has an opportunity to stretch his French chef muscles. Even here, though, the result are largely simple dishes, made earlier and served almost frozen in parts. And though each of the four are ostensibly different, all are based on chocolate and come in the same cylindrical shape. Huh.

So, consider this new restaurant an easy entry point into the under-represented cuisine of Africa. If you're planning a meal with unadventurous eaters, take them to Marrakech: They'll marvel at the (occasionally uncomfortable) decor evocative of Morroco, and likely find themselves less challenged by their culinary explorationthan they feared.

Marrakech Restaurant

2.5 stars

2402 S. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-258-9100

XXX and XXX, husband and wife owners of Marrakech Restaurant in Tampa, come from separate continents, across the Mediterranean Sea. She's Moroccan, he's French, two nationalities that have an entwined history apparent to anyone who's seen Casablanca. And, although XXX is a classically trained French chef, the menu at Marrakech is almost entirely devoted to the cuisine of his wife's homeland.

That means rich dishes that blend sweet and savory on the same plate, often using dried fruit like prunes, aromatic spices like cinnamon and less common ingredients like preserved lemon. Entrees are divided between humble couscous topped with rich meats and stewed vegetables; elegant pastry pockets called pastilla, stuffed with vegetables, chicken or seafood; and an array of dishes served in the impressive, portable clay ovens called tagine.

And, like Tampa's recent flirtation with Ethiopian food at Queen of Sheba and the defunct Abol Bunna, it's traditional. Perhaps too traditional.

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