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If you only ordered zaalouk ($3.50), you’d be disappointed. Despite a promising undertaste of cumin, this soggy eggplant-and-tomato puree seems like baba ganoush’s dull-witted cousin. Neither do the filo cigars impress, with their unseasoned ground meat tumbling out the ends. And La Kasbah’s dining room—garishly lit and robed in mirrors—doesn’t try to capture the romance of Morocco the way places like Layla and Chez Es Saada do. An electronic keyboard the size of a Honda Civic dominates the room from a rug-strewn dais, behind which slouch a pair of frilly-collared bas-relief troubadours. They must have overslept the day the Crusades left North Africa.
But decor be damned when tajine m’kali ($9.95) arrives, and you’re transported to Rabat’s old medina. A wonderful aroma wafts upward as the server doffs the conical lid, and you’re confronted by glistening french fries strewn like rose petals over the surface of a thick lamb stew. The tender shank meat is pungent with lemon wedges and green olives, and every time I’ve eaten it, there’s been at least one oozing marrow bone. Once the fries and meat give out, it’s just you, the gravy, and the excellent bread—a crusty Moroccan loaf made on the premises and served warm. Chase it with a communal pot of the sugary mint tea, made with a thicket of fresh spearmint leaves, standing in sharp contrast to the bagged variety foisted elsewhere.
Other tajines are equally inviting. Toasted sesame seeds scatter the top of bel barkouk, which matches hefty lamb chunks with prunes and almonds that reduce themselves into a viscous liquid—maybe too sweet for some. Other estimable tajines include one featuring chicken, brine-preserved lemons, and potatoes, and another—notable for its lack of sweetness—that mixes lamb, artichokes, and peas. But sweet and savory tajines are child’s play compared with the making of a great couscous. Drop into any of Manhattan’s upscale Moroccans and you’ll be confronted with semolina served damp and mushy, or as dry as windblown sand. The righteous hydration of couscous forms an essential part of Moroccan cooking, and La Kasbah emphatically succeeds at the task. Tfaya ($8.95) is the most intriguing, the particles kept moist by a smothering of caramelized onions entwined with shredded chicken, raisins, and chickpeas. Beyond that, your choices are limited to the standard vegetarian and royal varieties, which distinguish themselves by not stinting on the vegetables.
Though the kebabs are very well cooked, they’re not the most interesting choice in a neighborhood that boasts a great souvlaki cart on nearly every block. Instead, choose the national signature of b’stilla ($8.95), an extravagant filo pie layered with shredded chicken, crushed almonds, and scrambled egg. A superficial crisscrossing of cinnamon and powdered sugar sends it halfway to dessert land, which is appreciated, since the desserts on the menu are rarely available. The pie is as superb as it can be without the ingredient that’s invariably used in Morocco, but never in New York: squab. It’s not as if the bird is unavailable—it can be found in any Chinatown market. Perhaps the proprietors picked up their Arab-English dictionary and were scared by the translation: pigeon.