All Aboard the Marrakech Express
Mediterranean Café offers a culinary tour of North Africa
A culinary delight for food explorers, the menu at Mediterranean Café sails like Marco Polo from port to port along the silk trade routes of yore. The dishes delight with the bold combinations of sweet, sour, savory and salty flavors, typical of Moroccan, Tunisian and other Middle Eastern cuisines. Cumin, saffron, dried ginger, cinnamon, paprika, rose water, dried fruits, preserved lemons, salty olives and nuts all mingle peacefully on the plate.
Fans of Marrakech, the popular but long-gone Moroccan eatery that was located on Central near UNM, will recognize some familiar dishes here; Marrakech's chef/owner Ridha Bouajila opened Mediterranean Café in partnership with his cousin Riadh Dakhl. These two are naturals for the restaurant business. They both have a friendly, accommodating demeanor and were ever patient while answering an unending round of questions about North African food and its preparation. They really seemed pleased to be teaching us about the intricacies of their menu, so feel free to ask a lot of questions when you go.
Mediterranean Café is a cozy little spot, located at San Mateo and Copper, where Annapurna Aayurvedic Cuisine & Chai House used to be. The place is tiny but doesn't feel cramped because the dozen or so commodious tables are well spaced. Warm yellow walls, a few North African decorative accents and a colorful mural keep the decor simple and sunny.
I dined at the café with a lunch bunch so that we could share dishes; it was a great idea. We started with a satisfying soup called harira ($4.95) not to be confused with harissa—the traditional spicy hot sauce which is a second cousin to our own red chile sauce. Chef Bouajila makes his own harissa sauce. Small, dried red chiles are hydrated, puréed and made into a paste; then eight spices are added including cumin, garlic, black pepper, and a dash of lemon juice to brighten the flavors. Use this delicious condiment to spice up the harira, which is more like porridge, with rich chicken stock, garbanzo beans, bulgur wheat (also found in couscous), saffron and a touch of tomato sauce. It's the dish that is often eaten to break the daily fast during Ramadan.
We opted for a mezza plate ($7.95) as the second course, although I had reservations about its cost; it was quite good but no bargain. Mezza is a Middle Eastern term for appetizer. The plate included a tasty but not very garlicky hummus, a smooth baba ganoush (Tunisian style, perfect for dipping into with warm pita bread), and a refreshing tabuli salad. This version was verdant with parsley, light and bright with a nice balance of lemon and olive oil.
Greek specialties might be more familiar and are represented here mostly in the appetizer and dessert sections of the menu. You'll find dolmathes ($3.95) rice-stuffed grape leaves ($3.95), spanakopita ($3.95) phyllo dough filled with spinach, feta cheese and nutmeg. Gyros are also offered and are served with shaved lamb, chicken or beef and garnished with cucumber, tomato, onions and cucumber sauce. It can be ordered as a sandwich in pita bread ($4.75) or as a plate ($7.95) with rice. The falafel sandwich ($4.95) didn't disappoint. The deep fried chickpea balls were nicely browned and full of flavor, a bit tricky to share but everyone got a taste.
Our next course was the most exotic dish of the day. It's called the King's Bastilla, a traditional Moroccan specialty served to esteemed guests at weddings or other special occasions. Traditionally it's pigeon pie (or squab, if you're squeamish) and I have seen it served either as an appetizer, an entrée, or with fruit and nuts as a dessert. It arrived looking like a round phyllo pastry throw pillow sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Inside was a delicious combination of moist chicken, ground almonds, spices and rose water. Everyone in our little group felt like an esteemed guest and lots of “oohs” and “aahs” followed.
We hit an impasse when it came to the next course. Two of us wanted lamb couscous and the others could not resist the tagine of lemon chicken, made with chef Bouajila's own preserved lemons (which sat in a jar within everyone's view throughout the meal). The lemons had their way with us and everyone was pleased. The citrus, salt contrast played very well with the earthiness of the olives and moist chicken of the dish. Next time I'll go for the lamb.
Fresh mint tea with rose water was the perfect companion for a shared, sweet nutty baklava and our gracious hosts automatically refilled tea as needed from a shiny silver pitcher.
A beer and wine license is in the works and Chef Bouajila is going to expand the lunch menu to include some daily specials and a few cost effective lunch items for his loyal lunch crowd.
Set your sails for a Mediterranean excursion full of exotic dishes that just might become old standbys. Friday and Saturday evenings dinner guests are treated to a professional belly dance show at no extra charge. Reservations can be made for parties of five or more, so get some friends together and head for the Mediterranean. Try it, you'll like it.
Mediterranean Café; 513 San Mateo NE; 255-5244; Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m - 9 p.m.; Price range: Inexpensive to moderate; Master Card and Visa accepted