Though Moroccan cuisine is among the world’s most subtle and appealing, New York suffers from a dearth of it. Manhattan Moroccan restaurants have typically been expensive and not very good, more intent on dispensing cocktails and attracting supermodels than on whipping up tasty food. But working-class cafés with cheaper and better Moroccan fare began springing up in Astoria and Bay Ridge a couple of years ago. Foremost among them was La Maison du Couscous, a highfalutin name for a tiny closet of a place just off Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue, an area known for its Egyptian and Syrian groceries and cafés. Flaunting Morocco’s French heritage, La Maison served a warm baguette with its pungent and saucy tajines. Redolent of saffron, cumin, ginger, green olives, and pickled lemons, these braises of lamb or chicken were both cooked and delivered in a tajine, a conical clay vessel. Composed salads were also noteworthy, including a garlicky mash of eggplant called zaalouk, and bakoula, a marvelous heap of lemony spinach.
As sometimes happens with proprietors of brilliant holes-in-the-wall, ambition set in. And so the tiny La Maison birthed the more commodious and upscale Les Babouches on Bay Ridge’s Third Avenue restaurant row, named for the backless leather slippers one often takes home from North Africa, but rarely wears. From the bare-brick-and-votive-candles school of restaurant design, the new room is spacious and attractive. But in spite of the salivatory smell of grilled meats issuing from the kitchen door, the entrée action is elsewhere. While the platters of merguez sausage and lamb kefta ($15 and $14, respectively) would make nice shared appetizers, they make boring, bare-bones entrées.
The tajines, however, retain every ounce of their former glory. A favorite this time around is kedra ($14), featuring chicken with smothered almonds and caramelized onions. Les Babouches one-ups La Maison by substituting a crusty round Moroccan loaf for the baguette. The couscouses are even better than before, paved with vegetables and accompanied by a bowl of bouillon, used to moisten the semolina as it dries out. Showiest is couscous royale ($19), incorporating a conjoined leg and thigh of chicken and an entire lamb shank. But alas, the same dish at La Maison du Couscous—still thriving three blocks away under new ownership—costs only $11.95 for a serving approximately the same size, illustrating the real message of bistroization: higher prices.
The wages of bistroization are particularly felt among the appetizer salads. While La Maison’s completely cover giant plates, plenty for two or three as a shared starter, Les Babouches’ are minuscule. The zaalouk and bakoula arrive in pucks about the size of a cat food can, each dwarfed on a big, round dinner plate and surrounded by extraneous leafy matter that’s devoid of dressing, so you probably won’t be eating it unless you’re a rabbit. You were probably burned-out on baby lettuces, anyway. Oh, and there are a couple of tiny crostini scattered on the plate like lost travelers from a foreign country. They’re not very tasty, either. My advice? Eat your salads at La Maison, then trudge over to Les Babouches for the couscouses and tajines.