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When Marrakesh's novelty wears off, its Moroccan flavors will endure

It's only natural, in a time and a city where our main entertainment is eating, that novelty should be the primary appeal of a restaurant. In any discussion of his business, you'll hear a local restaurateur complain about the famous "fickleness" of Dallas diners, who are said to be on a constant quest for something new--something different and distracting. Restaurateurs tell me that Dallas diners have no loyalty; that--more than in other cities--they get bored easily and quickly abandon the tried and true for something new.

On the other hand, speaking from the diners' point of view, too often it seems like Dallas menus all were conceived by the same brain. How many stuffed jalapenos can we eat? Why would we not keep shopping around for something that seems new and exciting? Dallas has spawned an enormous number of high-concept chain restaurants, and the chef-owned, food-oriented upscale places tend to clone themselves, too, so that even excellence sinks into sameness. We end up with Deep Ellum recreated in Addison and a Riviera on every block. It seems odd to me that Dallas diners are accused of being fickle, novelty-seeking sharks, while Dallas restaurant owners seem intent on reproducing a single concept literally ad nauseam. If diners are looking for something new and different, why not give it to them?

Well, Dallas hasn't tasted Moroccan food before, and that's reason enough to embrace Marrakesh. It actually is something new and different. Just one month after its opening, Marrakesh is packed on weekends, when the belly dancer is rolling quarters and shot glasses up and down her abdomen and there's an hour wait if you don't have reservations. But novelty only lasts so long, and the pleasures of this restaurant are ones that promise to endure after the first fascination with the new and even the navel have passed.

Often our first taste of a new culture is enjoyed in a tentative, toe-hold ambiance, barely hanging on in a Formica-finished strip center. The first Vietnamese restaurants in Dallas and the first Thai restaurants in Dallas were products of their neighborhoods--shoestring mom-and-pop kind of places designed to serve mostly Vietnamese and Thai clientele, respectively. But the owners of Marrakesh have created a lush little world behind the painted and padded doors on Lovers Lane in the Park Cities' restaurant row. There's valet parking out front, and the room inside is a dim den lined with banquettes and low tables; the walls are hung with swords and silver artifacts. There are no windows, you can't see the street, the lighting is low, candles are shaded in red, and Arabic music keens in the background; the whole effect is of a sealed-off sanctuary. It's the perfect setting for Moroccan food, which is similar to Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek food, as you would expect, and which, at least here, has an exotic opulence lacking in those other cuisines--a sexy lushness that might have come from Morocco's long domination by the French.

Bread and olives--symbols of Middle Eastern hospitality--are brought even before the menus at Marrakesh. The hot, raised bread--only an inch thick, but doughy and tender--is unsalted, its faint wheat sweetness perfectly complementary to the shiny little wrinkled olives with lemon and garlic served in flat ceramic bowls. This is your first taste of that surprising combination of sweet and savory, unfamiliar and a little startling to modern Western palates. These are the flavors the Crusaders brought home--the heavy spice and sugar that made meat-eating possible in medieval times.

If you only try one appetizer, make it pastilla--a square pillow of puff pastry filled with ground chicken and almonds and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar--just because it's the perfect introduction to this new palette of flavors of meat with sweet and spice with salt. We also tried the Moroccan lentil soup harrira, with trailing clouds of egg drops in a lemon-tart, cinnamon-scented, cinnabar-colored, vegetable-based broth; and Shrimp Tangier--a Creolelike stew of small soft shrimp in a bright paprika and garlic sauce. The marvelous mussels--big meaty bivalves--were smothered in a sauce of tomato and lemon (surprisingly, that's not too much tartness) infused with the scent of thyme, so irresistible that we dipped more bread in it after the mussels were gone. We weren't bored yet.

Shekshouka is called a traditional Moroccan salad, but it's not what we think of as salad because the braised slivers of green pepper and tomato are served slightly warm, as is the eggplant Marrakesh, another "salad" that seems more like a vegetable stew--eggplant cooked to a kind of jam with garlic.

The wine list is still evolving, but the red Moroccan wines we tried (Marrakesh, Sidi Brahim, and the wonderfully named Domaine de Sahari) stood up well to the perfumed foods.

"Tagine" and "couscous" were among the few familiar words from Moroccan cooking and refer to both the foods and the dishes they're served in.

Marrakesh offers two versions of tagine, a slow-simmered stew in which the meat isn't first browned but cooked slowly with other ingredients to build up a melange of flavors and keep the meat tender. Again unlike the usual Western dish whose sauces and garnishes are designed to enhance and decorate the single flavor of the primary protein on the plate, this food is cooked and seasoned so that all the flavors are equal--where everything is blended for balance and the ingredients are in such proportion that nothing dominates, and your mouth encounters a single complex and mysterious flavor. In many tagines the meat is marinated, then braised with fruit and spices that we would consider proper for dessert flavors but not for dinner; you can taste the base of beef and prunes in Marrakesh's Tagine Royale, but only as single strands of the complex whole. Even the textural changes are subtle; everything is easy to cut, obligingly tender, the only resistance offered by almonds; you don't need your knife at Marrakesh. Another tagine was based on chicken, covered with a rich, chutneylike mixture of pitted green olives and preserved lemon and cooked till the meat fell from the bones, with a pile of peas cooked to LeSeur-canned-green and topped with artichoke hearts finishing the plate.

Couscous, which besides Casablanca is the main thing most Westerners know about Morocco, is here a bed of fluffy semolina grains, topped with an architectural arrangement of stewed vegetables--huge carrot chunks, slippery cooked onion, and big thick slices of turnip, zucchini, and a scattering of nut-flavored garbanzo beans over a piece of tender chicken with harissa, the fiery Moroccan pepper paste, served on the side.

The mixed kabob plate was more what we expect from Middle Eastern food, with the near-starkness of charcoal cooking, the flatly fresh, nearly bare presentation of chunks of charcoaled chicken grilled to slight bitterness. The beef was nearly raw--soft and bloody inside the dark sear; and the kufta--that lean, almost leathery-textured Arab sausage--also was cooked just until medium rare. It was served with squares of grilled red and green pepper and Moroccan saffron rice--the long grain mixed with peas, carrots, and onion so that it was almost a main dish in itself. Lamb chops--the thin, fat-rimmed rounds of meat on long bones rich and shiny--were presented with the same sides.

It wasn't just the marvelous food that made Marrakesh appealing; part of the delight of eating at Marrakesh was the ceremony of the meal. Your dinner arrives hidden under the high garlic-shaped dome of a beautiful ceramic tagine so that the perfume hits your face immediately when the waiter lifts the dome to reveal your meal arranged on a plate that rests on the tagine's base. Service was smooth--unfailingly polite and accommodating--on both our visits, even when the kitchen was slow. Your glass of green mint tea, the national Moroccan after-dinner refresher, is poured from on high in the traditional manner; and--the loveliest touch of all--when we'd finished our meal, a server sprinkled our hands with rose water poured from a long-throated pitcher.

You can tell by now that I love Marrakesh. The blend of service, atmosphere, and food is as perfectly balanced and complementary as the ingredients in the tagine. And though it's my job to be fickle when it comes to restaurants, I think I'll go to this one even after I've become familiar with every special stew on the menu. I expect I'll remain a faithful fan of Marrakesh, at least until branches open in Addison and Plano.

Marrakesh, 5207 W. Lovers Lane, (214) 357-4104. Open for dinner Sunday-Thursday, 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-midnight.

Pastilla $6.95
Harrira $2.95
Shekshouka $4.95
Tagine Royale $13.95
Couscous $12.95

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