Sea of Peas
Maybe Marrackech isn't the best Moroccan restaurant in town, but it might be the cutest. Situated on the Red Hook frontier, the diminutive storefront hangs over the BQE, which runs in a trench in these parts, traversed by a pretty arching bridge that makes you feel like you're in Amsterdam or Venice. On a sleety night, with a transit strike looming, several friends and I crossed the slushy span from the restaurant back to Carroll Gardens as the midnight strike deadline loomed.
Boasting a twisted spelling for an ancient trading town on the edge of the Sahara, Marrackech occupies a little cozy room with a makeshift banquette running along two walls. Small tables along it seat perhaps 12 or 14. A handful of dishes are stunning, while the rest are bland and undistinguished, from a cuisine that must be counted among the world's most exciting. Traditional lamb tajine ($16) is one of the stunners: an entire shank, its bleached bone sticking out like a skeleton amputee offering its non-hand for a shake. It comes mired in cooked-down prunes littered with slivered almonds and sesame seeds. This is meat on its way to becoming candy. Susanwho lived in Fez for three years and is going back soonwas impressed: "Lamb shank cooked this way is a special-occasion dish that Moroccans enjoy only once or twice a year," she enthused.
Another delight is the kefta tajine ($11), miniature lamb meatballs in a subtle tomato sauce, made extravagant by a pair of sunny-side-up eggs perched on top. Lamb sausage is afforded the same treatment in the merguez tajine. All tajines come with homemade pitas, but couscous or rice would be a better accompaniment, since the flatbreads are useless when it comes to absorbing extra sauce. The same merguez can be loaded into a pita sandwich ($6) with a bit of onion and parsley; it tastes great but the amount of meat is meager.
While some dishes score, others miss the basket completely. Everybody's favorite tajine is the one featuring chicken, preserved lemon, and cracked green olives, sometimes known as chicken m'hammer. The version at Marrackech bombs for two reasons: (1) the olives used are wimpy cocktail olives; (2) the tajine is blanketed with canned peas, resembling a green field dug up by a thousand gophers. Now, I'm not opposed to petits pois, but enough is enough! On the other hand, while most couscouses in town are on the dry side, barely redeemed by the traditional cup of broth that arrives alongside, Marrackech's are unfailingly moist. No extra broth is offered or needed. The vegetables-only version ($10) is particularly good, and we took to ordering it as a shared side dish to be dumped into the tajines.
Though the breads are useless when served with the tajines, they function perfectly as scoops for the vegetarian salads, which stray from North African onto Middle Eastern turf. While the baba is fairly mediocre, lacking in the smoky flavor one yearns for, the cumin-inflected carrot and beet salads are completely up to snuff. Though it might cost a little more, order one of the herb-strewn zaatar breads ($2.75) to go with them. You'll have the essence of Moroccan cuisine in a nutshell.
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