Marrakesh restaurants: from street food to fine dining, an exotic taste sensation
Skewers, salads, tagine, merguez, sheep’s head for the adventurous, and pastilla – a pie that can have savoury or sweet fillings – await the diner on the streets and in the fine-dining restaurants of the Moroccan city
Jemaa el-Fnaa is the difficult-to-pronounce but impossible-to-miss large central square in the southern Moroccan city of Marrakesh. The food on offer there serves as a perfect introduction to the beguiling cuisine of the north African country.
During the heat of the day there are stalls selling vast mounds of dried fruit and nuts and freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juices, but come the cooler late afternoon it begins to slowly wake up, not unlike the cobras that are charmed from baskets as people start arriving in numbers. Lanterns are lit as crowds descend and the entertainment begins with all manner of acrobats and jugglers, hawkers and hustlers, dancers and beggars.
It makes for an intoxicating mix that will stay with you and makes a dining backdrop with few rivals.
It is not, however, the first place locals would choose to dine, as I heard that from several Marrakesh natives. It’s more a dining circus as stallholders shout, whistle and wave to try to entice you to their particular stand. Our simple, but broadly effective approach was to pick a stall where we weren’t hassled to sit, the food looked fresh and the mix of customers seemed happy.
The grill is the main culinary star here, meaning that in the evening the square is bathed in a sweet, smoky haze from the meat, fish and vegetables grilled over charcoal or wood. There’s a big choice of foods to eat on skewers, including all manner of chicken, goat, beef and lamb parts – some more recognisable than others.
Then there are large prawns, ruby-red tuna steaks and mounds of squid from Essaouira on the coast, a three-hour drive away. Huge bowls of salad look incredible – classics such as tomato and cucumber, carrot and chickpea or the warm zaalouk made with charred eggplants, cumin, sweet paprika and lemon juice.
Of course, there are also baskets of briouates, the decadent fried triangular pastries with a variety of fillings. Mounds of couscous, steaming tagines and coils of spicy merguez sausages also abound, while snail soup is a local speciality available all over the market. White snails are used, cooked slowly in a mix of up to 20 spices that results in a broth of peppery complexity.
For the more adventurous – especially those not married to a vegetarian – the local classic of steamed sheep’s head in gravy is another option. Some of the diners I saw ordering it seemed to be looking for a photo opportunity more than dinner; the head is usually steamed for at least five hours, then dusted with a lot of salt, cumin and chilli powder, and demands to be eaten hot, with your fingers.
There are juices and mint tea to accompany your meal, and tooth-achingly sweet, rosewater-infused desserts and pastries to finish on. One word of warning: check your bill and your change, as overcharging is unfortunately all too common.
A world away from the hectic, smoky madness of the square – although in fact it’s barely a 10-minute walk – sits the supremely elegant and utterly refined Royal Mansour Hotel. It was commissioned by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI as somewhere to host his official guests, and today its 53 private riad houses make it one of Africa’s most exclusive residences.
To match the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Royal Mansour, the hotel turned to one of France’s greatest chefs, Yannick Alléno, to oversee its culinary programme.
One of a very exclusive club of chefs to hold two three-Michelin-star restaurants in France, Alléno took on the challenge of presenting Moroccan cuisine as well as French fine-dining fare.
He immersed in the former partly by watching home chefs in kitchens around Morocco – and, intriguingly, named a service station on the road to Fez as one of his favourite restaurants anywhere, because of how they cook tagines and brochettes over a fire. As he explains, his fascination with Moroccan cuisine comes from its balance.
“To me, Moroccan is a cuisine of colours and flavours, in part thanks to the use of herbs and spices. Spices from the same region usually match. Moreover, unlike some other cuisines that also use spices, Moroccan is very soft and subtle, using them with great delicacy to support taste – not hide it.”
La Grande Table Marocaine at The Royal Mansour has to be one of the most beautiful restaurants anywhere. That is because 1,500 Moroccan master craftsmen worked for three years to create every element of it, from intricately carved marble and wood to dining tables inlaid with silverwork, beautiful hand-woven cushions, curtains six metres (20 feet) high, and incredible tableware.
To begin a meal there, bread is served with a delicious sweet nut butter called amlou, made with argan oil, honey and almonds. A few bites and it becomes a must-have souvenir.
After a cleansing, delicate amuse-bouche of cucumber with orange foam and cinnamon came a generous selection of briouates pastries. Hot and crisp on the outside, their fragrant fillings include spinach and cheese, as well as chicken with honey and almonds.
More pastry comes next in the shape of a perfect pigeon pastilla. It showed the sensational balance Alléno mentioned, with flavours that are subtle and spices that support, but do not overpower them.
Under a dome of thin filo-like pastry called warqa, dusted in cinnamon and icing sugar, sat incredibly aromatic shredded pigeon with saffron, cinnamon, cumin and almonds. It was generous enough for two people, even before the main dish of fall-apart tender lamb tagine with seasonal vegetables, in this case peas and artichoke.
La Grande Table Marocaine is one of the country’s most exclusive and expensive experiences – but for the surroundings, service and impeccable execution, it’s worth every dirham.
To finish, we head deep into the medina, the vast, magical maze of alleyways which have enchanted and confused visitors to Marrakesh since the 11th century. There are sections given over to different fresh and cooked foods, rotisserie chicken stands and bakers with the most enticing bread imaginable. Msemen is a sort of fried pancake flatbread, crispy outside and chewy inside. It’s insanely good, especially when hot from the pan and filled with honey and pistachios or spicy ground beef.
Another restaurant, Latitude 31, is about a 20-minute walk from Jemaa el-Fnaa, assuming you do not get lost in the labyrinthine side streets. The setting, a quiet courtyard decked with orange trees, is a charming spot for lunch or dinner. There’s no alcohol served, but an impressive range of mint teas is offered.
It is somewhat unusual in that it offers vegetarian and vegan menus, and some European dishes, in addition to traditional Moroccan favourites. Sticking with the latter, its harira – the classic lamb, chickpea and lentil soup with notes including turmeric, ginger, pepper and yet more cinnamon – was a great start and showed why this is such a beloved national staple.
Tagine madarebale, or chicken with caramelised tomatoes, was excellent, while the accompanying potatoes with honey and thyme honestly made a welcome change from couscous.
To finish, another crispy pastilla, this time stuffed with apples, dates and ginger, made for the perfect end to 48 hours in the enchanting Red City.
La Grande Table Marocaine at The Royal Mansour, Arsat Gestion, Rue Abou Abbas El Sebti, Marrakesh. Tel: +212 (0) 5 29 80 82 82.
More information: https://www.royalmansour.com/en/dining/la-grande-table-marocaine
Latitude 31, 186 rue El Gza Arset lhiri Bab Doukkala, Marrakesh. Tel: +212 (0) 5 24 38 49 34.
More information: http://www.latitude31marrakech.com/
Airlines including Cathay Pacific, Air France-KLM, Swiss, and Qatar Airways offer flights between Hong Kong and Marrakesh with one intermediate stop.