Surprisingly, the biggest disappointment in Morocco is the food. On paper Magherebi cuisine should be the best in the world. It’s a conundrum. The guide books lie. Unless you’re in an upmarket tourist trap, the couscous is usually stodgy, the lamb tajines gristle, and everything swims in cheap oil. There is no variety outside the cities: tajine or desiccated brochette is all you’ll get, even less choice once you’re over the Atlas. Soup, especially the tomato based harira, is however generally excellent and if you have any culinary discretion you soon settle on these for lunch and supper.
During a two week expedition of gastronomic monotony in ironically one of the most picturesque countries in the world, the best thing I ate was a sun-saturated orange on Marrakesh’s famous Djma’a el Fna and some bananas from the nearby souk. These were measured out with much smiling on a crooked iron scale with the merchant using an odd assortment of scrap metal as a counter balance. As I stepped away, with my two spark plugs worth of bananas, the neck of a chicken was slashed in front of me then twisted open, blood spraying everywhere. The rest of the unfortunate bird’s brethren continued feeding themselves up, staring uncomprehending from their cage at the slaughter. The convulsing chicken was dropped into an empty paint drum and covered with a bent lid. There was only the sound of a dull scuffling, and the stench of blood.
So, when I heard that a new upmarket Moroccan restaurant had recently opened in the Gardens, a branch of a popular Durban outfit, I eagerly headed for it. Finally, I’d have Moroccan ingredients butchered off site and cooked according to my fastidious Western standards.
The Fabulous Moroccan Restaurant is in the old Amigo’s building at the top of Kloof Street. Attractively lit on the outside with fairy lights and hung with Moroccan lanterns, it exudes exotic Orientalist charm. Downstairs has conventional seating, but Munchkin and I opted to sit upstairs on carpets under a tented ceiling.
The waitress was warm and friendly, attentive but indiscrete. I ordered the house wine. She said there was only one bottle left and they needed it for sale by the glass. Would I mind ordering something else? I obliged.
The menu is divided into traditional Moroccan cuisine and European dishes with a Spanish or North African twist, for example beef fillet (R78) on a saffron risotto cake, ostrich fillet (R60) rubbed with sumac, and lamb cutlets (R91) topped with black olive, sundried tomato and mint tapenade.
But we came for the Moroccan dishes. Munchkin ordered the vegetarian turla turla tagine. This is a pink coloured vegetable stew with garlic roasted butternut, carrot, aubergine, peppers, sweet potato and chickpeas, then slow cooked with cinnamon in a coconut cream sauce. Sounds stunning, on paper. What had happened to the garlic, the cinnamon and the individual flavours is a mystery. Munchkin virtually emptied the salt cellar to give it some taste.
I ordered a large mezze platter (R86) to sample as much variety as possible. This came with three soups served in small, ornate Moroccan tea glasses. These were pleasant enough, but almost indistinguishable. The shredded beetroot salad was the most successful of the numerous dishes. The lamb kebabs were soggy and cold; the skewered chicken less objectionable but utterly uninspired. The various dips were as dull as a supermarket.
We did complain to the waitress. Her answer was to blush, apologise, and then explain that only ‘the kitchen staff’ were working that night. I asked where the chef and management were. She shrugged. “They’re hardly ever here,” she said.
Although I’d by now completely lost interest in this restaurant, Munchkin has a sweet tooth and ordered the Moroccan Princess (R30). This is supposed to be a variation on the crème brûlée. Garnished with diced pistachio nut it is infused with lavender, which gives it a sharp aromatic touch. The texture however was closer to fridge cheesecake, and nothing like a crème brûlée.
The next morning, Munchkin phoned to report a stomach upset. Billed as authentic Moroccan cuisine, this description is ironically and disappointingly true.
A note: Unlike all previous reviews in this column, which were based on numerous visits to the same establishment, this is based on a single experience.
Fabulous Moroccan Restaurant, 158 Kloof Street, Gardens, Cape Town. Open Monday to Saturday for dinner; Tuesday to Friday for lunch. Tel: 021 423 6805. http://www.fabulousrestaurant.co.za/