Our first glimpse of the sheik's rec room took in the figure of a lithe redhead writhing on the floor. As the music wailed, a black-caftaned barefoot hostess softly crossed from the kitchen to the vestibule. She led us past the onlookers to one of the low wooden tables arranged around the perimeter of the room. I scooted onto the fabric-covered banquette against the wall, lanky 6-footer Christina joining me, while TJ and Pat gamely sank onto the floor pillows opposite. As the belly dancer rose back to vertical, we scanned the surroundings, enjoying the fantasy exoticism of walls lined with bright, patterned fabrics, wall-to-wall carpeting of a springy machine-made "Oriental," and a tented ceiling of billowing white cloth. Instead of napkins and silverware, the hostess brought us big white terry towels for laps and lips. We'd be eating with our hands -- specifically, with the right hand, whenever we remembered proper decorum. (In most utensil-free cultures, the gauche left is reserved for the finale of the digestive process.) Then a server brought a silver-plated basin and carafe, all hands on deck as he poured warm water over them. Zap! On a rainy Bay Area evening we were transported to an Arabian night in Marrakesh.
Ah, Morocco. The hashish haven for generations of bohemians is also one of the timeless gardens of eating. Its food bears only a general resemblance to the more familiar fare of our Palestinian-run delis, falafel joints, and shawarma emporia: The flavors run deeper, bolder, and broader. At the northwest corner of North Africa, bordering both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean (from which the Red Sea furnished a passage to India), Morocco was among the maritime crossroads of the medieval world. A portion of the costly Asian spices bound for Spain and England stayed behind at Fez, lending rich, complex aromas to a rakish cosmopolitan coast, compared to the stringencies of inland desert cuisines. (Morocco is also a wine-growing region, which tends to undermine any puritan tendencies from the ground up.)
Up to the Reagan era (when money, aerobics, and Opium perfume replaced adventure, food, and sex), Moroccan cuisine was "fashionable" in San Francisco -- tourists frequented the expensive Marrakesh Palace downtown, UC doctors-in-training indulged themselves at the pretty-expensive Mamounia on Balboa. I preferred the newer El Mansour for its reasonable tab and the clear, deep flavors of its cooking. (None of the Levantine Three had belly dancing then.) Mamounia finally expired, and was replaced by Pasha, a high-priced belly-dance palace on Van Ness, and while El Mansour changed ownership some dozen years ago (and added its own belly dancers), the kitchen retained its integrity, and it's remained my favorite, a delicious bargain.
As we studied the menu, the redhead concluded her set with the "money dance," collecting dollar tips, which were tucked into her waistband by the males in the audience, including a well-behaved 8-year-old at the next table; paralyzed by shimmying hips, he finally ceded his donation to his steady-handed mom. He wasn't the only child on the premises -- several tables that were finishing their dinners as we arrived held family groups with equally demure youngsters. It was another of those lovely heterogeneous local crowds.
The five-course prix fixe dinners are $18 and $20, depending on your entree; the higher-price ones come with a side of couscous. Dinner begins with harira, an earthy, comforting lentil soup, wonderful for sopping with the fine house-baked bread, its hard-crusted exterior sheltering a soft, hearty, naturally sweet interior. From a medium-length wine list, priced from the teens to the upper 20s, I chose a Chateau Jordan (Monterey) GewYrztraminer ($18) -- a real find, its clean, gentle fruitiness just right with the strongly seasoned food. "In Islamic Paradise, the tap water must taste just like this," I observed. On the five-item beer list TJ found a sprightly Lebanese Pilsener, Almaza. For adventure's sake we also passed around one glass ($4) of Moroccan red, tannic enough to make us shudder.
Next was a four-part composed salad, a North African version of the Mideast mezze platter. A very fresh tomato salad was dressed with sparky green herbs and a vinaigrette piqued by lemon juice, cumin, and ginger. "How do they get such ripe tomatoes in winter?" TJ asked. "Beats me," I mumbled, scooping up another bite. Adjoining heaps of sliced cucumbers and sliced carrots had the same dressing, which tasted different in each context; a dark-brown eggplant puree rounding out the plate was strong-flavored with cumin and a touch of hot pepper.
Morocco's best-known dish is bastela, a savory phyllo-crust pie of minced poultry and almonds. The bad part was, the pie arrived uncut and blisteringly hot. But just then, the belly dancer started her next set, so we had something to do besides watch the bastela cool. Probably not by coincidence, every other table was also just starting or just finishing a course, and the entertainment gave appetites a chance to recover. The 30-ish redhead was good: At one point, with arms overhead clashing her finger cymbals, she moved a ring up and down her torso from navel to breasts and back down again. Then she drew various audience members into the act. (Whenever she approached our table, Pat and TJ raptly addressed the pie.) From the party in the corner alcove, she induced the birthday boy to take a turn on the floor. Captured from the other side of the room, two wholesome collegiate-looking women tried laughingly to mimic the pro's serpentine wriggles. My favorite was a stout gray-haired Asian with a buzz cut, taking it slow and easy, backfield in sinuous motion. Returning to his table and his beaming, fragile old father, he twinklingly compared notes with the sandy-haired neighboring lad, the former dollar-donor.
El Mansour's bastela proved one of the most satisfying and substantial versions I've had. In the U.S., chicken usually replaces the squab of the original, but the juicy dark-meat filling here made a credible stand-in for the pricey pigeon. The house-made crackly dough-sheets were slightly thicker than normal phyllo (more like Tunisian briq) but they, too, kept the filling succulent, and the powdered sugar and cinnamon dusting was delicate, not overdone.
The menu offers several lamb and chicken entrees, "squab kebobs," and a seafood platter. "I hate lamb," said Christina; remembering that Morocco has two coastlines, she chose the seafood, which brought tender prawns and scallops in a thick, delicious lemon-herb butter sauce. They came with a baseball-sized mound of fluffy couscous redolent of chicken stock, topped with a tart, aromatic mince that I finally realized was probably Morocco's famed salt-preserved lemon. Alongside were zucchini and carrot slices sauteed with fresh green grapes of almost shocking sweetness, and over all were firm chickpeas scattered like a broken pearl necklace. Pat chose a combo of braised lamb and chicken with almonds, which also included couscous and garbanzos; both meats were mild-flavored and pleasing, and the lamb sat atop the same veggie-grape mixture as the seafood, the combined juices creating a spectacular new flavor. TJ gambled on rabbit in paprika sauce. The white meat was dryish (as it usually is) but the thigh was succulent. Dark, rich, and with a little spicy kick, the sauce was strongly flavored and colored by Hungarian paprika (which, I think, had been strained out as the texture was grit-free); pureed rabbit liver served as the thickener. "Dynamite!" TJ pronounced, compulsively dipping his bread in it. But the star entree (which moved to the center of the table) was my tajine (braise) of lamb with honey and almonds. The meat (from the shoulder, but cut to resemble a rib rack) was incredibly tender from long, gentle cooking, and was finished in a dark, intoxicating sauce that was sweet but far from cloying. "I'm getting drunk on this sauce," giggled Pat. "I was wrong when I said I didn't like lamb," declared Chris. "Up until now the only lamb I've had has been tough and stringy. Now I just have to rethink it."
Our server brought back the hand-washing basin, and then sprinkled our hands with fragrant rose-water, leaving them deliciously scented. ("How'll I explain this to my husband?" asked Chris.) He then poured mint tea unerringly from on high into tall narrow glasses on the table three feet below him, cooling the subtly sweetened liquid just enough to drink. There were two desserts: sensual banana fritters in a light honey syrup, and a round spiraled pastry called Chabbakia, that I can only describe as looking like a buffalo patty colored Day-Glo orange. It was made of a slightly salty bread dough, deep-fried crunchy, and even with its light syrup glaze the overall flavor was just barely sweet. "This was an incredible meal," Pat declared. "I'm coming back with my husband," Christina vowed. "We're all coming back bringing other friends," I told the smiling hostess, as we exited the stately pleasure dome into the chill night of our home country.