We've heard of Marrakesh over the years-- it's very popular with the college kiddies since it's relatively inexpensive for huge quantities of food and BYO-- but never actually experienced it for ourselves. During a discussion at a recent book club meeting regarding Marcus Samuelsson's African inspirations, someone brought up this little Philadelphian treasure. So of course... we all had to go together!
When you arrive, get ready to be transported to another place and time. The restaurant is literally located on a tiny alley that you never knew existed, yet it's just a half block off of a hoppin' stretch of South Street. Ring the doorbell for access (there is no vestibule to stand in, so I assume this is for space saving, not for secrecy) and a man in Moroccan attire will lead you in. The interior looks like a Middle Eastern living room, with fabrics and paintings on every surface in every color.
We were seated pn a round couch around a large metal table (you can see many of them above). The waiter helped us wash our hands together (with rose water, so you may want to bring your own hand sanitizer), and then we all shared a towel to dry. You will also receive a large bath sized towel for your lap- and you'll need it! One of the unique aspects of dinner at Marrakesh is that you eat almost every course with your hands.
There is no menu at Marrakesh, it is simply a multi-course fixed price meal, the same for everyone. We're not sure if they even have a vegetarian option. First up: a huge platter of vegetable salads. The waiter also brought around the largest basket of pita bread I've ever seen, and suggested we take a handful. These are to be used as utensils for the entire meal, so we tried to hang onto some for the later courses (trading of pita had to take place later in the meal for those who took too few!).
The three salads are a cold, garlicky carrot salad, a cucumber, pepper and tomato salad with a hint of vinegar, and a warm smashed eggplant dip. All three of them were addicting, but the carrot salad was my personal favorite- perfect soft discs of salty, garlicky carrots.
The second course needs no pita for dipping- it has it's own puff pastry shell, surrounding a finely chopped mix of egg and ground chicken, all of which is topped with a heavy sprinkling of powdered sugar and cinnamon. This "B'stella" wasn't my favorite of the night, but it was still interesting and delicious- it reminded me of French toast with it's combination of eggs and sugar. Since we didn't have utensils, we tore it into large chunks for better grabbage.
There are two options for the first meat course: a spicy roasted chicken, or a ... not spicy roast chicken. Obviously we all unanimously chose the spicy option, but later agreed that it wasn't too spicy. Apparently our group of six deserved a chicken and a half, which when plated appeared to be a mutant bird. I don't know WHAT they did to this, but it was hands down some of the best chicken I've ever had- steaming hot (my hands of steel helped work off some of the larger bits to help it cool down), extraordinarily moist, with tons of flavor from the wet marinade. Yes, you're picking meat off the bones with only your hands- that towel came in very handy here.
The second meat course was good in it's own right, but not nearly as flavorful and fun as the chicken, which is surprising since it was a much more interesting meat-- lamb! You can also choose a beef kebab, but we again unanimously chose the lamb. Huge chunks of lamb bone (mostly vertebrae?) held small pieces of meat, much less juicy so cleaner to eat, just significantly more boring. A sweet honey sauce was a surprisingly good match.
So.. at this point we were all getting full, which was good since the next two courses were much lighter. First, a spiced couscous mix topped with softened vegetables (more carrots yay!), chickpeas and some shreds of meat. A very Moroccan dish, but still very approachable to those wary of foreign cuisine. The waiter brought a handful of spoons, which were critical for scooping the tiny grains of couscous.
The dessert course came with three items: a thin sticky sheet of baklava, a bowl of fresh fruit straight from the supermarket, and glasses of hot mint tea. I was introduced to baklava at a very young age and have been obsessed ever since.. so therefore I can be a bit of a snob about it. While I would never turn a baklava down, this one was really just so-so, with not nearly enough chopped nuts in the filling, and too few layers of pastry.
The bowl of fresh fruit primarily went into our purses for snacks later in the week (is that weird?), but the hot mint tea was enjoyed on the spot- probably about half sugar, it was a sweet way to end the meal. I don't know how I went this long without experiencing the joys of consuming plate after plate of delicious Moroccan eats with my hands, but I'm glad I was indoctrinated with such a wonderful, fun group of girls. And, at just $25 ($31.50 with tax and tip included), you'd be hard pressed to find a better deal.
517 S. Leithgow Street (between 4th and 5th; South and Lombard)