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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Overcast
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Marrakesh's small dishes are the way to make a meal
A fine meze
Makouda and harira, with mint tea.
Credit:Ryan Wisniewski

When the well-liked Shish Cafe closed along with its sister restaurant, Palmyra, the double loss left a Mediterranean-sized hole in Madison's west-side dining scene. The closures hit vegetarians particularly hard, as the classic meze (small dish) items like hummus, stuffed grape leaves and baba ganouj at the two Syrian spots were among the city's tastier non-meat offerings.

But the impact of losing these unique spice- and veggie-friendly restaurants promised to be tempered somewhat when Marrakesh, serving "Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisine at its highest level," opened in the former Shish space on University Avenue.

Marrakesh proprietor Youssef Amraoui has led tours to Morocco, Egypt and Jordan through his company Nomad Travel for a number of years; opening the restaurant grew out of this experience. Prior to operating tours, Amraoui was the executive chef at the Dardanelles, a long-running Moroccan restaurant located on Monroe Street.

The former Shish space has been beautifully updated. The large front windows are draped in colorful fabric, adding intimacy but not detracting from the natural light. One of the two dining rooms is painted in a saturated dusty red, while the other has been transformed with richly colored walls and opulent floral banquettes.

The ambiance is enlivened further by a good sound system playing Moroccan music loud enough to be part of the dining experience. The overall effect is luxe and inviting.

The relatively short menu at Marrakesh is filled with familiar dishes such as hummus, falafel and tabouli, but also lesser-known items like makoudah (also spelled maakouda - potato croquettes), mohamara (also spelled muhammara - a spicy red pepper dip), and zaluuk (also spelled zaalouk - a stewed eggplant and tomato spread).

Shawarmas, traditionally spit-roasted meats served with pita or rice, are served during lunch. They are replaced by couscous options and a variety of tagines at dinner.

Starters and salads are successful, although poor-quality pita bread is a distraction. The tabouli is slightly oily, but the tomatoes, cucumber, parsley and mint are fresh. The mohamara - red pepper, walnuts and artichoke hearts ground to a spreadable form - has a smoky complexity. A drizzle of tamarind on top adds sweetness, contrasting with the spice. It's an addictive combination. The garlicky zaluuk is moist and satisfying; the rich flavors of eggplant and tomato are skillfully balanced.

Dinner entrees, though, are not as successful. On a recent night the chicken bastilla, shredded chicken with egg and ground toasted almonds between layers of phyllo dough, was almost inedibly dry. The nuanced flavor of aromatic spices and rose water couldn't save it.

Similarly, the chicken rafissa, chicken breast with lentils over a bed of phyllo, was dry even though there was ample moisture in the beans. The lentils had pleasant spicing, but couldn't overcome the stringy bird.

The best dish was a lamb tagine - stewed chunks of lamb, onion, potatoes and carrots mixed in a comforting sauce. Strangely, despite the sauce, the lamb was also dry.

Shish Cafe was a popular lunchtime spot for workers from the UW Hospital area, and Marrakesh's menu is priced to attract this clientele. Very slow service, however, will limit the number of customers willing to chance an extended noontime meal.

Shawarma - lamb, beef or chicken - can be ordered as a plate with greens and hummus or, for a few dollars less, a sandwich. Standout items include the makouda, those delicious fried potato croquettes, which can also be ordered in a filling pita for $7.50. Think savory, potato-based, uber-crunchy hushpuppies with fluffy interiors. Also of note is the kefta tagine, available only at lunch: firm meatballs served in a tomato sauce along with a poached egg and saffron rice.

Harira, a Moroccan soup of tomato with chickpeas and lentils, is superb. Hints of cinnamon and cumin compete harmoniously with other spices; a bowl is only $4.

Likewise, a recently sampled lamb shawarma was well prepared. Pieces of lightly charred meat are paired on the plate with a tangy cucumber yogurt sauce.

For dessert, try the mint tea. It arrives in ornate teaware, and the steeped leaves have an enticing herbal complexity.

The dryness that plagued the proteins at Marrakesh happily does not affect the vegetarian options. The falafel, vegetable tagine and any of the well-executed starters will satisfy. If you were a Shish Cafe customer primarily for its non-meat options, Marrakesh should be an attractive place to get your meze fix day or night.

But if, like many on the west side, you were hopeful that this newcomer would return great Mediterranean fare to the area, you may be disappointed.

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