Friday is the day for couscous at Bab Marrakech in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as it is in Morocco, where the dish — unchanged in recipe from the 16th century, according to the food historian Clifford A. Wright — follows noon prayers.
The grains, as dainty as a doll’s pearls, are rinsed with olive oil and steamed, then rubbed apart and steamed again, until they swell, each a tiny held breath. By tradition, the finished couscous, heaped with whole chickpeas and great logs of carrots, is scooped from a communal plate and rolled between the thumb and the first two fingers, to make a ready mouthful.
Here there are spoons but the same seemingly bottomless dish. And the same generosity of spirit: When I arrived for lunch on a recent Friday, the grate was still half pulled down, but a cook peeked her head out, waved me inside and brought me couscous.
Ismail Bourrich and his wife, Bouchra Salmi, natives of Morocco — he from Casablanca, she from Essaouira, both along the coast — opened Bab Marrakech last June in what was once a Chinese-Mexican spot. The restaurant’s name honors one of the gateways to Casablanca’s old medina; guests pass through an arched wooden door into the dining room.
The chef, Malika Hakmoune, grew up in Marrakesh. Hers is an art of expansive comfort, materializing in great plates of meat. A treble clef of lamb shank, the flesh easily tugged off the bone, is long braised with giant fattened prunes and slivered almonds strewn like petals. There are whiffs of cinnamon and jam, along with a hot-sweet streak of ginger.Continue reading the main story
Half a chicken, breast and leg, comes perfumed with rounds of preserved lemon, salted in-house and steeped in their own juices for six months, until what’s left is just the bloom of sun and a gentle, tamed sourness. Green olives add brine and Moroccan saffron an enveloping musk.
(Note that the menu repeats itself: Mr. Bourrich explained that chicken m’kelli and chicken tagine, listed separately, were the same dish; likewise lamb shank and lamb tagine. “The difference is the plate,” he said: The distinctive terra-cotta tagine has a broad, shallow base and a lid rising to a funnel, allowing the steam to condense and feed back into the food below.)
Elsewhere on the table you will want zaalouk, eggplant grilled until its pores leak smoke, then mashed with tomato and garlic; and house-made merguez, compact links of ground beef ticking with harissa, the Moroccan chile paste whose heat starts off slow and radiates.
Ms. Hakmoune offers two versions of bastilla, a meat pie made in Morocco with sheer, flexible sheets of dough called ouarka — literally, paper. Here she uses similarly delicate phyllo, tucking it around a velvety mix of shredded chicken and scrambled eggs. The pastry arrives in a snowfall of icing sugar, crosshatched with cinnamon and crowned by almonds, their bitter edge smoothed by orange-blossom water.
The other bastilla shares only the outer form, with no trace of sweetness. Inside is a hash of shrimp and whatever white fish is fresh that day, along with curling vermicelli noodles, mushrooms turned meaty and a thick reduction of tomatoes. Harissa, olives and preserved lemons make it hot, salty and sour at once. A yolk, broken on top, gives it a burnish in the oven.
The restaurant’s hours shift during the holy month of Ramadan, which begins on May 15 this year. Doors open at 2 p.m., but for takeout only; meals are served from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. — the time for nourishment after one day’s fast, before the start of another.
Whenever the meal, it’s brought to a close with Chinese gunpowder tea, brewed first alone and then again with bright mint leaves crowded into the pot. It’s meant to be poured from on high, so it foams in the glass; the air it catches on the way down is said to enhance the flavor, and the height is a gesture of respect. (Attendants to Morocco’s royal court have been said to pour tea while standing on a ladder.)
With tea may appear an unexpected plate of cookies, a gift from Ms. Salmi, including chebakia, strips of dough interlaced to suggest a rose and deep-fried, or twice-baked fekkas, crumbly and akin to biscotti. Better yet is m’smen, a square of flatbread made of wheat flour with semolina kneaded in, stretched by hand and folded repeatedly, each layer painted with butter.
The bread is thin but dense, its corners lovely to gnaw on. It’s as good eaten plain during the meal as after, with a shimmer of honey.
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