In general, the food we had in Marrakesh was limited in choice (i.e., all Moroccan), and while the food was never totally awful, it was rarely that amazing. All our meals consisted of some combination of flatbreads, tomato-and-cucumber salads, chicken or lamb braised in a tagine (the cone-shaped cooking pot used in Morocco), and of course, mint tea.
Although tagines pretty much dominate all menus, not all tagines are created equal, nor are they all the same price. As you’d expect when there’s a large income gap even among locals (i.e., lots of poor and a few ultra rich), much less between locals and tourists, restaurants we tried were either dirt-cheap (because they cater to locals?) or expensive by any standard. In other words, we didn’t find a lot of mid-range options in Marrakesh. For example, when Jon and I ate at street stalls or communal tables in the Djemma el Fna, our meal for *two* cost $5-$10, but when we ate at restaurants recommended by any number of newspapers and magazines (e.g., NYT, the Guardian, Conde Nast Traveler), our tab for two would run upwards of $100 despite ordering cheapo local wine.
Eating at the Riad L’Orangeraie
Our best meal in Marrakesh, hands down, was the dinner served by our riad, and our continental breakfasts in the morning weren’t too shabby, either. Both the breakfasts and our one dinner at the riad were home-cooked and fresh, and we ate in the comfort of a niche off the central garden courtyard.Breakfast every morning was served with coffee or tea, orange-zested crepes, a Moroccan flatbread of semolina flour, pound cake, and baguettes with a choice of jams. An Atkins-diet nightmare, but we loved every bite, especially because breakfast was included in the price of our stay.
For dinner one night, with a bottle of really delicious wine we’d lugged to Marrakesh (thanks, Bobby and Cathy!) and a modest cost of 25 euros each, we tried three different Moroccan salads (salad being the generic term for veggie appetizers), a lamb tagine with couscous, and an orange-and-cinnamon dessert. The salads we tried in Morocco could be as simple as what Jon calls “Israeli health salad” and which is that combo of cucumber, tomato and onion that you put on falafel (falafel is *not* served in Marrakesh, by the way), or they could be as interesting as the ones at our riad. One salad made of fried eggplant and edam cheese was especially genius, though I’m not sure how traditional it was. Our least favourite salad was one of broad beans and tomato, mostly because the flavors didn’t seem to blend at all.
What knocked our socks off at our riad dinner was the lamb tagine. It didn’t look like much (comfort food never does), but when our hostess lifted the tagine cover off, the strong, hearty smell of lamb steamed out in an aromatic cloud. Not only was the lamb tender and flavourful (tasting of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, sugars of all forms), but also fresh, sweet dates carefully topped with chopped almonds added a dash of texture and contrasting flavors.
Jon and I demolished the lamb and the accompanying hot, fluffy couscous. We were so full, we couldn’t finish the very simple dessert of fresh oranges dusted with cinnamon and sugar.Oranges, if you haven’t noticed a theme, are everywhere in Marrakesh. Orange trees are everywhere, even in the unlikeliest of places, which explains the dozens of fresh orange juice sellers in the Djemma el Fna.
Bo & Zin, Douar Lahna, Route de l’Ourika (+212 24 388 012)
Of the expensive ($100+ for two) dinners we ate, Bo & Zin and Le Foundouk are kind of neck-and-neck (see my post on Day 1 re: Le Foundouk). Bo Zin was a 20-minute schlep outside of central Marrakesh (negotiate hard with the petit taxis – we settled on 50 dh), which was kind of a pain, but once there, it’s a large, sleek, dramatic, candle-lit place that reminds you of any number of restos in NY, Paris, London . . . .When Jon and I arrived for our 9:30 dinner reservation, the tables were full (a mix of couples and big groups – all white, so presumably foreign) and a DJ was in the middle of the room spinning a loungey soundtrack. The place is definitely too cool for school.
The restaurant’s Thai-French food was uneven (though averaging out at a “not horrible”), and definitely overpriced for what it was. for example, my eggplant-and-goat-cheese millefeuille was enjoyable (a tower of creamy sweetness), while my chicken-and-cashew main course was not only low on cashews, but also was glopped over by a sugary-sweet sauce with little heat.
What we enjoyed about Bo Zin, though, was the scene and atmosphere. The crowd was sort of a caricature of cool (all in black) and sometime after 10 pm, the “regulars” started coming in, so we enjoyed watching all the delighted hugs and kisses flying around.
The restaurant, thankfully, provides a complimentary car and driver to get you back into town, because I can’t imagine how extortionate a petit taxi would cost to come out to the restaurant and bring you back to Marrakech center.
The cheapest of the pricey restaurants we tried was Al Fassia, which is outside the medina in the Gueliz, which is the “new” part of Marrakech the French built. It’s kind of an antiseptic area with its wide boulevards and boxy 1960s-ish buildings.
Al Fassia has been around for a while and has a real grande dame vibe going on with all kinds of mirrors, gilt and faded rugs. What drew us were the reviews we’d read as well as the fact that the business is entirely staffed (and owned?) by women.
We showed up without a reservation and even though I could see dozens of empty tables in the vast dining room, the maitre d’ claimed she didn’t have room. I wasn’t really interested in arguing, so we turned to leave, and as we headed for the door, suddenly the woman had a table that just happened to be free.
If you’re looking for the classics and want something high-quality, then Al Fassia is for you. Prices were high considering you can buy the same dishes at the local hangouts, but portions were huge. The harira, for example, was thick and full of goodies. It also came in such an enormous portion that it would easily have fed four. All for 55 dh.
My order of the kefta tagine avec oeufs, a local specialty of meatballs with an egg on top, was very good, but not sure I’d pay 100 dh (~$14) for it considering we had a similarly good dish at a café packed with locals for 1/3 that price.
Bottom line: I think Al Fassia would be a nice, safe (as in likely very sanitary) place to go if you need an introduction to Moroccan classics, but I wouldn’t make it a destination.
Cheap EatingFood Stalls in the Djemma el Fna
Just before sunset every day, the Snake Guys, storytellers, musicians and henna artists in the Djemma el Fna make way for hundreds of open-air kitchens and tables to set up shop for the dinner rush. Each stall specializes in one dish, but in general, they’re selling brochettes (kebabs), spicy merguez sausages, harira (the traditional, filling Moroccan soup of lentils, chickpeas and lamb bits), snails, and sheep parts (umm, the head).
Jon and I couldn’t resist the smoky aromas and festive atmosphere, so one evening, we took a seat at a merguez sausage stall that was crowded with local families (the part of you that roots for the underdog wants to patronize the empty stalls, but I figure the locals can’t be wrong, and even if they are, high turnover means food safety, generally). For just 15 dh (less than $2!), we snacked on a plate of sausages, bread, and multiple glasses of mint tea. It wasn’t the best sausage in the world (not spicy or flavourful enough for me), but it was hot, fresh and freaking dirt cheap. Plus, sitting elbow-to-elbow with local rug rats and parents is a priceless experience.
Chez Chegrouni, Djemma el Fna (+212 63 434 132)
A little higher in cost than the stalls in the square, but still a cheap eat is Chez Chegrouni. The Djemma el Fna is bordered by big restaurants that include signs screaming that you can get rooftop seating. Instinctively, I’d stay away because it seems totally touristy to eat at these places, but Chez Chegrouni (on the northeast corner of the Djemma el Fna) was recommended by so many sources that gave it a try for lunch.Lunch was definitely packed with tourists, especially on the rooftop dining area. But the food was much better than I expected, and it was nice to relax and watch the action on the Djemma el Fna.
You sit down, get a limited menu of Moroccan specialties written out in English and French, scribble down what you want on a “napkin” (which is little more than a scrap of paper, seriously), and then wait for your steaming hot tagine or brochette with couscous to show up.
My chicken with couscous was fine. The chicken was a little dry, but the couscous was hot and fluffy with raisins and onions to add sweetness. It was hot and fresh and cheap. No big complaints.
Cost for two appetizers, mint tea and two mains: 60 dh (less than $8). So if you want to try one of the restaurants on the square, you could do worse than Chez Chegrouni.