November 19, 2007

Morocco Restaurant: Lamb Sushi and Hookahs Come to Worcester

Note: for a more recent review (January 6, 2008), click here

Morocco Middle Eastern restaurant opened at 172 Shrewsbury Street less than two weeks ago at the site that used to be Anthony's. According to owner Sadi Sadi, it takes its name in part from the now-defunct El Morocco, a place that came to be something of a local legend. Sadi, who is Lebanese, also told me that the name was chosen because Americans see Morocco as a friendly Arab country and it's too risky to name a place something like "Beirut;" it might scare away customers. The new place isn't likely to scare anyone, though. While it's a new venture and has a couple of kinks to iron out, it promises to be something special and already has very good food and atmosphere that are going to get better over the next few weeks.

We started off our meal with a four-item mezza of baba ghanouj, ma'anik (a spicy lamb mini-sausage), lebneh and shanklish. The first two of these were excellent, particularly the ma'anik. It was the best I've had, in fact. The baba ghanouj was freshly made and had a distinctly flame-broiled flavor; clearly no cans were involved in preparation which is all too often the case even at supposedly "fine" Middle Eastern restaurants. The shanklish was a bit of a disappointment, though, being of a weak-flavored variety that disappeared behind the tomato and parsley that accompanied it.

I was glad to find araq on the menu at Morocco. I generally can't stomach the taste of licorice, but araq is the exception to the rule for me. This marks the first time I've been to a restaurant that serves the stuff, so I was only too happy to have some as part of my appetizer. My dining companions chose from the decent wine list a Lebanese red wine. I generally find Middle Eastern wine a bit too sweet for my palette, so I passed on that.

For dinner, I ordered the kibbe nayye, an item that one doesn't see on menus too often due to people's health concerns (admittedly, eating raw meat is a bit of a risk these days, but how could I resist?) The last time I had the dish was at a restaurant in London about 10 years ago, so I was overjoyed to find a favorite on the menu here. My kibbe was served with onions and a spicy tomato and olive oil-based sauce; the presentation was excellent. There really is nothing quite like a glass of araq and a plate of raw meat to put one in the mood to howl at the moon! LL had beef shawarma which she thought good but not great (I tried a bite and thought it was excellent, but I defer to her vastly greater experience in all matters of Middle Eastern culture and cuisine). Our other companion had fish in a tahini sauce (I've forgotten the exact name; sorry) that he complained was too salty. Again, I'm not generally a fan of Middle Eastern fish recipes; they tend to be a bit overcooked and dry for a guy who, after all, likes to have the occasional plate of raw lamb brought to him.

For dessert, I had a rice pudding that was simple, not overly sweet, and quite good. LL had hawasi, a cheese-based cold sort of thing that I wish I could describe better. You'll just have to try it for yourself. The other member of the party had knafe. I didn't try any of it, being far too stuffed by this point, but he proclaimed it the best he'd had in nearly forty years of eating Arab cuisine. The moral of the story is, leave room for dessert when you go to Morocco!

The restaurant is dimly lit and has great atmosphere. Arab music is played and a big screen TV near the full bar was showing Middle Eastern music videos while we were there. Now, let me add yet one more thing to my list of items that make me want to howl at the moon — Arab women with long black hair and big brown eyes. I found the combination of araq, my entree, Hayfa Wehbe and Diana Haddad to be rather stimulating. If only there had been a full moon last night!

The biggest problem Morocco has right now is service, which was a little uneven at times. It was a minor problem, really, and will no doubt get better in time. The place has been open for less than two weeks, after all. Even in this instance, service was friendly if wonky and Sadi himself is a personable guy who was working the tables as we ate. He's got big ideas for the place, of course.

In the next few weeks, Morocco will be opening a separate room for smoking arguilleh. The one thing we've missed since moving here from Tallahassee has been a hookah bar at which to hang out. There isn't one in Worcester, although there are nearly two dozen in Boston. Still, that's an hour away, so having one coming to Shrewsbury Street is a positive development. Sadi also told us that there will be live belly dancing and music starting in a couple of weeks, so I'm sure we'll be making additional trips in the near future.

Morocco is located at 172 Shrewbury Street at the corner of Lyons. Reservations are suggested on the weekend (call 508-459-9660), and I'm sure they will be a necessity once word gets out about the place. It was about half full last night. There's no parking lot, so a walk may be necessary, but well-worth it. Even better, leave the car home so you can drink more araq!

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