Owner and chef Alain Bennouna uses traditional Moroccan spices and cooking techniques to create a menu of bold cuisine, which Westchester Magazine described as "incredible, hauntingly spiced food" when placing Zitoune on its The Year's 10 Best Restaurants list in 2008. Entrees of braised lamb and grilled chicken flood the senses with comforting aromas of saffron, honey, and ginger—ingredients that Alain regularly savored while growing up in Marrakesh.
Although Alain draws inspiration from French and American recipes, Moroccan influences definitely take the lead. In addition to serving slow-cooked meat and lentil stews in clay tagine pots, Chef Bennouna embraces the family-style aspect of his childhood cuisine by cooking entire 18- to 20-pound lambs for larger parties if given five days advance notice. The New York Times praised the chef's commitment to these homestyle touches in 2007, claiming, "Mr. Bennouna is in love with his native cuisine, and he wants you to love it too."
The food's vibrant eclecticism echoes the dining room's highly sensory decor. Copper-topped tables, arabesque tiles, and handcrafted textiles from Marrakesh marketplaces fill the sunset-orange space. On Friday and Saturday evenings, the restaurant invites belly dancers to perform, allowing them to sweep throughout the dining room and enthrall diners with their ability to recite the Gettysburg Address backwards.
A stairway strewn with rose petals and flickering candles entices couples down into Shalel Lounge’s dimly lit romantic grotto, where they occupy marble tables in intimate corners of cave-like rooms. Moroccan snacks match the exotic décor of throw pillows and tapestries set aglow by warm candlelight.
At Casaville Restaurant, the chefs draw culinary inspiration from kitchens across the western Mediterranean and add hints of traditional Spanish and French cuisine to Moroccan staples. Time Out New York praised the dishes for their authenticity, noting that “to find better homespun North African cooking, you’d have to travel to Paris or Casablanca—or at least the far reaches of Brooklyn or Queens." Spiced merguez and pillowy couscous help to build upon that reputation, and trays of tapas drift around murmuring groups.
The dining room's yellow stucco walls brim with a number of Moorish-inspired accents, including tiled recesses. Navigating between the tables inside or on the outdoor patio, belly dancers occasionally swirl their hips, jingling pendant-laden belts. Servers dodge past to fill glasses with wine, selected from the restaurant's extensive list to pair with meals or work with the rhyme scheme of an extremely detailed autobiography.
Aromas of roasted lamb, spicy merguez, and subtly sweet shisha waft across Le Souk's three stories of space, surrounding patrons with the scents of Moroccan cuisine. In the kitchen, the chefs stuff housemade lamb sausage and sprinkle strands of saffron into their fragrant sauces. Platters of couscous and tagines with duck confit, red snapper, or lobster help to lend distinctly North African flavors to the menu.
Moorish archways link the restaurant's orange-walled rooms, which are lit by dangling lanterns and smoldering coals atop hookahs filled with fruit-flavored shisha. Guests can practice their smoke rings or smoke dodecahedrons while live dancers and occasional DJ performances entertain them throughout the night.
Meats are typically fired on a grill in customary Moroccan cuisine. But, despite an otherwise steadfast commitment to authentic, Moroccan food, Zerza owner Radouane ElJaouhari knows that, sometimes, a restaurant benefits from a little unconventional thinking. So when Zerza moved to a new location, ElJaouhari told his contractors to leave the existing clay oven in the kitchen. As a result, the distinctively Moroccan meats—ginger-marinated chicken-breast kebabs, spiced ground beef, lamb and chicken tagines—emerge juicier and with a more full-bodied flavor than their more “authentic” counterparts.
Though the cooking style may cross cultural boundaries, the ambiance at Zerza’s is positively Moroccan. Punctured-brass lanterns spray the walls with golden rays, casting gentle light on clay pots and guests nestled in chairs adorned with burgundy upholstery. On Saturday nights, belly dancers sashay to North African pop tunes or the rhythmic clatter of pots and pans.
One look at the circuitous journey Tagine's Head Chef Hamid Idrissi took to get to where he is today, and it's no surprise that he's most attracted to the "rustic, labor-intensive" quality of Moroccan food. Starting his adult life as a barister in Northern Morocco, the reluctant lawyer started spending more and more of his time coordinating elaborate dinner parties for friends. Perhaps he wanted to reclaim part of a childhood spent helping his mother prepare feasts, often for upwards of a hundred family members and friends. In those early days—which acted as an de facto apprenticeship—he learned from her how to balance Berber and Arabic flavors, discovering the subtle interactions of orange blossom water, cardamom, and mint. He also familiarized himself with the tools of the trade, working with massive earthenware pots and hand-welded copper pans.
Even after 30 years in New York City, and years spent working his way up from line cook, he still finds that the flavors of his native Morocco suit him best. His passion for his culinary tradition is such that he often waxes poetical about the ingredients during his in-restaurant cooking classes. He expounds on the versatility of olive oil, which can enrich his signature Moroccan pheasant pie or add flavor to his homemade semolina bread. He elaborates on the virtues of roasted garlic, preserved lemon, and the rewards of doing the hard work of cooking yourself. That mindset is why he makes everything in house, from encasing his own lamb merguez sausages to enfolding sweets within fresh pastry dough. He also takes a hands-on role with drink preparation, and recommends the orange blossom sangria, also designed in his kitchen, to wash down the carefully crafted meals
Just as Chef Hamid's menu showcases the traditions of his homeland, the decor of his restaurant highlights the many artforms that surrounded him as he grew up. He bedecks the walls in handwoven berber textiles, and lights the soft space with the colored glass Moroccan lamps. Belly dancers sinuously wend their way through the dining room. Even the hookah pipes are works of art, the flavorful smoke emerging from colored glass bulbs just as genies emerge from the tailpipes of Toyota Celicas every 150,000 miles to grant wishes.