The flavor of the week was Moroccan – an exotic spicy blend of Europe and North Africa. No, no, not my visitor; a Moroccan dinner. Besides, different flavors of that sort are only monthly here ;) Chameau was too far away, so Café Momo, billed as “modern Moroccan cuisine,” on Westwood Boulevard it would be. When we walked in at 9 pm, the place was a deserted darkness.
The hostess asked us, instead, to take a table in attached Koutoubia. We walked through the connecting doorway, were visually assaulted by flailing flesh and crystal beads, and we immediately spun on our heels to retreat. We’ll take a seat back in the wasteland. A pajama’d older man with a smiley, glowing face whom I believe is Monsieur Michel, bolted through the doorway after us and insisted that the kitchen is the same for both restaurants, and it would be easier to sit in Koutoubia's dining room. I was very reluctant, but said okay. But you better get me a citron and soda if we’re sitting in that Moroccan Disneyland.
Everything you’d ever think about a stereotypical Moroccan restaurant is right up in your face at Koutoubia, even from the uber-bleached Casablanca white front with carved window openings, sculptured trim around the roof, and fancy gold Arabic-ized roman letters spelling out the name over the door (which we saw on the way out at the end of the evening). Interior walls are covered, here with opulent silk and velvet tasseled drapes; there with shimmering ivory, red and green patterned fabric that looks puffed and cushioned. The ceiling, dripping crystal chandeliers, is covered and cushioned like the walls, so I felt like we had broken into the holding cell of some palatial insanity ward. Low tables that look like giant ornate metal trays on low nightstands and cushioned/pillowed bench/couch-style seating with colorful, intricately patterned upholstery, are pushed to the perimeter of the room. That’s done to leave plenty of space in the center of the main dining area for the entertainment – a creamy white belly with gyrating hips and flailing arms attached to it. If you didn’t already know you were in Westwood, then you’d be almost certain that you were in the Morocco section of the Epcot Center.
Our host showed us one of the low tables between a couple of ladies in the corner and a foursome. Monsieur pushed aside a few of the pillows, all in different patterns that would make for Moroccan Shabby Chic, to make space for both of us on the seating against the wall. Instead, I strategically took one of the stools, small velvet cubes, with my back to the belly dancer. ;) A quick look again around the room, and between the flashes of flesh and swinging beads, I could make out a few other tables – it didn’t appear that anyone was Moroccan, but what do I know? I have no idea what Moroccan people look like. I guess I was ignorantly looking for a fez or two.
Because we had waited until almost 9:30 pm for dinner, what I would normally have thought to be too-sweet icky sticky specialty cocktails (pomegranate martini?) tasted as amazingly refreshing as ice cold water after a trek through the Sahara. Did I down suck down the whole thing before a bow-tied noodle of a man came by with an ornate metal basin and silver pitcher of water to ceremoniously wash our hands? Yes, yes I most certainly did. And bring me another martini before the belly dancer ting-tings those fingers cymbals my way again!
We found out through casual conversation that both our dining neighbors were first-timers to Moroccan food, which certainly made it feel even more like a tourist trip through Morocco. The foursome next to us had light, non-American-English accents, and were visiting LA. Both they and the two ladies to our right had ordered the Celebration Dinner – a preset menu that offers a good taste of typical Moroccan dishes. I took a peek at their tables, and decided to brave the menu on our own. In the end, though, we ended up basically with the same things, only sans the starters and dessert. The dessert was a small white puff with an almond sliver poked into the top, that I caught glimpse of later on. The visitors even offered a taste of it to me (but I politely declined and instead, did a happy *cheers!* with our cocktail glasses).
B’stia Au Poulet is a dinner dish made with a flaky pastry, similar to phyllo, though not quite as fine. The pastry is stuffed with chicken, egg, and almonds, and though it is a savory dish, it has powdered sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top, like a dessert. At Chameau, I remember tasting this for the first time and thinking it was a flavor that I would have to get used to. This time around at Koutoubia, the pastry was certainly flaky, but still I am not wild about eating something akin to baklava with chicken filling instead of pistachios. I probably need a few more cycles before I can fully appreciate the flavor combination. The chicken filling on its own, however, was very good. I don’t know where the eggs came in, but I definitely got the texture of nuts and tender, frag
rantly spiced chicken.
On the regular dinner menu, all of the tagines are lamb, and though he likes lamb, I prefer not to eat the result of slaughtering soft, cuddly cute cottony baby animals (but big fat juicy beef sure is okay, LOL!). Our server said we could select a chicken tagine from the celebration menu, so we ordered the Tagine de Poulet aux Pruneaux et Miel, fresh roasted chicken with prunes and honey. Like everything about Koutoubia, there was quite a flamboyant show of presenting the tagine to the table, removing the conical shaped lid with a sweeping flourish and a *ta-dah* Vanna White hand motion at the tagine’s base. After three, four, by golly it might have been five pomegranate cocktails that I kept insisting were “not that strong,” we were *ooh*ing at all the spectacle.
The chicken meat itself was flavorful and tender, but slightly difficult to remove from the bones. Using our hands would have been easier, for is that not why we splashed around with that metallic basin not twenty minutes ago? The Colonel’s original recipe is messy but do-able, but poulet that has been stew-roasting with sticky prunes and honey is a syrupy disaster for hands, so we stuck with a fork and knife. We did the best we could, but even the belly dancer with those damned nimble cymbals on could have done a better job than we.
The tagine also had simple cous cous and vegetables, both which stood out brightly against the dark reddish orange earthenware. The vegetables were crisp tender, but as expected of plain vegetables, didn’t offer much taste excitement. The cous cous is a more difficult read. Ever since a bout with a stomach virus that was not resultant of Houston’s preparation of cous cous, but will always be psychologically and subconsciously associated with the stuff that I saw on its way our of my body, I have weird anxieties about eating cous cous. The granules, which don’t know whether they want to be pasta or grain, are too big to be smooth like mashed potatoes, but too small to be like rice. For me, cous cous is stuck in a very undesirable carb-limbo. I tasted it, and it wasn’t inedible. Almost all of the cous cous went home in a styrofoam box with half the b’stia and a tiny piece of chicken from the tagine.
We skipped dessert. The food was good, but all of our other senses had now become too numb to take in anymore. Even the cocktails had set our sensibilities wonky. It had been a sensory overload from the moment Monsieur Michel coaxed us into the extravagantly decorated pseudo-tent – brightly colorful visuals, music and cymbals for the ears, and exotic spice and flavor combinations. For a full immersion in the Moroccan experience, I might go back to Koutoubia, especially since it’s so nearby in Westwood, but for a Moroccan meal that is focused on the food alone, I’d rather go back to Chameau. Or maybe come back early enough to try Café Momo.