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Friday, October 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Bedecked Marrakesh puts on quite a show

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Marrakesh Moroccan Restaurant


2334 Second Ave., Seattle, 206-956-0500

Moroccan

**½

$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.

Prices: Five-course "feast" $17.50 per person; Royale Feast Dinner $19 per person (for four or more); special mechoui (whole-sheep dinner) $29 per person (for eight or more, available with three-day notice).

Wine list: Inexpensive and unexciting, with plenty in the under-$20 range, including the house red, a Moroccan import ($18). Moroccan beer is also available.

Sound: Moderate. Belly dancers provide musical intrigue on Fridays and Saturdays.

Parking: none provided.

Beer and wine / all major credit cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access (though wheelchair users may encounter difficulties due to low tables and heavy carpeting).

If you discount the hours I've spent watching the film version of "The Sheltering Sky," the closest I've been to Morocco involves sitting in a dim room, lounging on pillows while eating a multicourse meal with my hands. I've done this at Moroccan restaurants in several states, over several decades, and have this to say about that: I'm getting old. Old enough to realize that 2-1/2 hours with my legs contorted around a low table is an hour too long.

Like every other Moroccan restaurant that's pitched its tent in an urban American setting, Marrakesh, unveiled in July, is all about the show. The food, while vaguely exotic and certainly enjoyable, is secondary to the mood.

This unprepossessing Belltown building, windowless by design, is built to resemble a pasha's tent (or the opium den of my imagination). This seductive stage set involves two small rooms embellished with flow-y fabric, Oriental rugs, softly upholstered banquettes and lighting that makes everything, and everyone, look sexy. Cushions surround small, wood-inlaid tables positioned closely together, making for one very friendly party, whether you're part of a festive group or an intimate dinner-for-two.

Servers, on my visits, were fresh-faced young women whose traditional Moroccan garb failed to disguise their big American smiles. Poised and perky, they introduce themselves and the menu: a five-course prix-fixe including soup, salads, b'stilla, choice of entree, dessert and a tea-pouring ceremony. Bath towels are distributed for draping over laps, catching errant crumbs and wiping mouths and paws.

Next, our costumed maiden returns with an ornate copper basin and pitcher of warm water, directing us to hold out our hands as she pours. This is a necessary ablution for those eating ethnic, using fingers in lieu of utensils (which are available for guests too fastidious to do the voodoo the Moroccans do so well).

One Friday night, in a nod to extra-entree excess, we took our server's advice, opting for the Royale Feast. Available for four or more, and a bargain at $19 per person, this allowed us to sample, family-style, half the entrees available as part of the standard feast ($17.50 per person).

Our Royale repast included chubby chicken thighs stewed and sweetened with honey and prunes; similarly sweet-and-sticky chicken with apricot sauce; and delightfully gamey hunks of bone-in lamb with fried eggplant. We sampled couscous Marrakesh (an uninspired, instant-tasting version of this steamed-semolina specialty, complete with vapid veggies), and a whole Cornish game hen braised with preserved lemons and (hiss!) dinky Spanish manzanilla olives straight out of a jar and better befitting a martini glass.

This chef's-choice lineup made for a whole lot of chicken, a mighty mess and all the excuse my pal Al needed to augment his exercise regime by getting up and shaking his middle-aged booty. His unwitting partner was a gorgeous blond belly dancer whose bare feet, gilt-festooned bra and taut naked midriff caused quite a stir among the men folk (and not a little professional jealousy in a certain female patron whose midsection could benefit from the liposuction cure). Similarly equipped dancers up the entertainment ante every Friday and Saturday night.

Whenever you dine at Marrakesh, the food-focused fun begins with harira, thick lentil soup that gets its hue from tomatoes and paprika. It's a fragrant, spice-packing potage likely to trigger a revelatory response from anyone raised on the tomato-soup-as-comfort-food model.

Housemade hobz — chunks of brown-crusted, anise-seeded, close-crumbed bread — is passed throughout the meal, used to soak up sauces and simplify the transport from table to mouth of the second-course "Salads Marrakesh." This dynamic duo features an intensely spiced purée of eggplant and carrot served on a broad ceramic platter ringed with what could best be described as Moroccan salsa: a sunny, citrus-tossed dice of tomato, celery and cucumber.

B'stilla Royale is the fragrant follow-up. This sweet-and-savory pastry impresses with fragile layers of filo enclosing ground chicken, almonds and egg. Hot from the oven, scented with cinnamon and wearing a deep dusting of powdered sugar, this wins big in the contest for oohs and ahhs.

I would have liked to have had the opportunity to ooh and ahh over mechoui — whole spit-roasted sheep prepared, with three-day's notice, for parties of eight or more (at $29 per). Or at least get to ogle a haunch as it was served to other guests. No such luck.

Instead I made do with lamb brochettes — skewers of artfully (if heavily) marinated lamb grilled two minutes longer than necessary and impaled, for visual effect, on a rump of raw eggplant. And I chose to sample other entree specialties, including braised hare, its thick tomato-based sauce wafting cumin, its mild meat not unlike that of a chicken.

These festive meals close with dessert — fruit one night, a fluff of milky Moroccan pudding on another — and with the inevitable cascade of sweetened mint tea ceremonially poured from on-high.

Then it's hand-washing time again, with a sprinkling of rosewater to perfume our passage back into the night, a fragrant reminder of a Moroccan adventure.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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