We were impressed when we discovered that the taxi driver knew where Al Mounia was. Not only because most of the other petit taxis seemed not to know where even the biggest monuments of the city were. But because we thought, “this must really be Moroccan cuisine!”
The comments in the guide book describing the place had whet our appetites: “On y mange la meilleure cuisine Marocaine du centre ville et ça se sait! (The best Moroccan cuisine in the down town, and people know it!)
“You know Al Mounia?”
“Yes, it is a very popular restaurant. Is it a French restaurant?”
“No, Moroccan. Typical cuisine.” Hopefully.
“Oh! I always thought it was French.”
Needless to say, we were a little surprised.
We crossed a courtyard shadowed by a huge tree. A little warmer, and I’m sure there would have been tables set outside.
Inside, a beautiful room completely tiled with a carved wooden ceiling. Big metal trays set as tables. Looking wonderfully traditional and authentic. With the tiles everywhere it was like being inside a beautiful empty swimming pool.
Dates and lemons are essential for the full harira experience. A little plate of dates and a little plate of lemon quarters. And harira soup: a thick aromatically spicy soup, almost creamy from the lentils its based on. Squeeze a lemon quarter and pinch off a bit of date and take off! The lemon gives a burst of citric energy especially in the beginning of mouth. Then the date kicks in with the length. The pasty, gamey sweetness of dates synthesizes all of the aromas and makes them long. So long.
Moroccan cuisine likes to play with sweetness to make flavors last. Linger. Like walking underneath a blooming orange tree. The sweetness is not cloying, as sweetness can sometimes be, but it takes over and makes the aroma long and complex. The date does that in the harira soup. And the cinnamon does it with the pastilla.
Cinnamon and sugar dusted pastilla. No, not desert, an appetizer, actually. With squab (pigeon) and almonds all ground up and wrapped up in dry flaky pastry. A wonderful marriage of gaminess and sweetness that is super complex both aromatically and texturally- with the crunchy almonds. This is pretty much a full meal, even though on the menu they present it as an appetizer.
The waiter recommended the lamb and prune tajine. “C’est la meilleure!”. It was indeed wonderful. Here again playing with the sweetness of prunes. Marrying it with the gamey lamb for added complexity and aromatic length.
Aromatically spicy. Rather than rip-your-mouth-up-aggressive spicy. That is what I liked about the Moroccan cuisine I tasted. A little like Vietnamese cuisine in that aspect. It’s all about finesse of aromas. Just playing with the spiciness to excite the taste buds but not aggress them. And, in Moroccan cuisine, the sweetness drives the spiciness to great lengths by taming it and riding it.
The S de Siroua that we ordered to go with is was perfect. A Syrah based, wooded wine that had just enough residual sugar. It sat on that happy line of balance between sweetness and gaminess inherent in all of the dishes. Moroccan wines have progressed so much, its incredible! Even more incredible, is that they have progressed just like French wines progressed over 5 centuries, in a manner that reflects the cuisine.
A note from The Duc: This restaurant was 80% filled with French and Moroccan business people (both male and female, including the Moroccan business teams). The Moroccan business people appeared to have chosen to take their French business partners to Al Mounia because the restaurant represented the best of Moroccan cuisine and wines and culture and liberation.
100% of the people in the restaurant drank wine. Even the Moroccan women. There were no French businesswomen in the group of men. There were always influential, modern Moroccan women in each delegation of business people of Morocco.
What a liberating sight to see Arabic women drinking wine and making business deals! In a restaurant of modern Moroccan cuisine!
What a symbol of the beautiful modern evolution of this Muslim country.