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Thursday, Aug. 12, 1999

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Moroccan fare to make the belly dance


The inquiry, from a regular reader, sounded more plaintive than optimistic. Is there anywhere in town that serves real, authentic Moroccan food?

The object of his desire was not so much couscous, which these days is not so hard to find at Tokyo's more sophisticated French (or fusion) restaurants, but the rich, tender stews of meat or fish known in North Africa as tagines.

The die was cast, no other excuse was needed. It was time to head off again to Morocco -- not the country itself, but the excellent little restaurant of the same name tucked away in the rather less-exotic climes of Minato-ku. Having eaten there several times after it first opened, about two years ago, we had not been back and weren't even sure it still existed. Thankfully it does, and the food is as simple and satisfying as ever.

Morocco's dining room is cozy and intimate. The walls and ceilings are covered in arabesque flock fabric of emerald green and gold, with mirrors glittering in the background. The tables are low, as are the chairs and upholstered banquettes (also green) that run along the wall. A large photo of "Casablanca"-era Bogart looks down on the music source -- which here is not (of course) Sam playing it again on the piano, but cassettes of the sinuous music that forms the constant street-level soundtrack throughout the Maghreb.

From the harem decor to the unctuous welcome of owner El Hachimy Jaafar, it feels as if you'd walked in from the souk in Meknes or Marrakech, not the affluent avenues of Akasaka. Jaafar is a native of Fez, where his parents own a majestic ancient restaurant. And while the food he serves cannot compare to the subtle, sophisticated cuisine you find inside the historic walls of that ancient city, his is still a very welcome facsimile of the real thing.

The menu is short, and things can be made simpler by ordering one of the three set courses, available for 3,200 yen, 4,000 yen or 5,800 yen. The basic running order is soup, followed by appetizers, then perhaps brochettes of spicy lamb and beef and finally couscous or tagine, or both, if you prefer. Further explanation and encouragement is readily forthcoming from Jaafar, his wife or their friendly assistant Alexander, a native of Timbuktu, who is by training a classical dancer and speaks at least five languages.

There are three different soups: harira, a lightly spiced, tomato-puree-based soup containing chickpeas and barley; hoda, a minestrone of mixed vegetables; and adas, a thick potage of lentils with plenty of cumin, which tastes far better than its porridge-gray appearance would suggest. As hors d'oeuvres, you will be offered either Moroccan savory pastries -- do try the pastilla of chicken if it's available -- or what they call "grilled salads," which in fact are finely chopped salsas of mixed vegetables -- pimento, tomato, carrot and/or eggplant.

The couscous comes in two versions, regular and premium. The former is in the Fez-style aux sept legumes, with plenty of vegetable matter arranged over the plump, steamed grains of wheat. The latter is couscous royale, featuring a substantial cut of tender beef in a high-octane gravy sweetened with prunes and adorned with almonds.

But we have come here for the tagines -- and we are not disappointed. There are six different varieties to choose from: Essouira-style (fish and vegetables); tagine m'chermel (chicken); with shrimp; with kefta (balls of minced beef); beef and potato; or that classic, made-in-heaven combination of beef and prunes.

The essential point about tagines is that skill in the kitchen is more important than folkloric presentation. They should be prepared in large quantities, well ahead of time, slowly simmered and judiciously seasoned. Morocco's tagines are all of the above, but served on ordinary plates rather than those conical-lidded ceramic tagine pots from which the dish derives its name.

All we tried were robust but delicate, succulent and satisfying. The fish tagine featured morsels of delicate white-meat fish, carrot and potato, in a tangy tomato broth. The tagine m'chermel is based on well-cooked chicken, onion and carrot in a spicy turmeric sauce. And the tagine of beef was melt-in-the-mouth soft, served in a rich, sweet gravy with prunes, almonds and quartered hard-boiled eggs.

As with the couscous royale, this dish is more commonly made with lamb. However, the Australian meat sold in Japan is apparently far fattier than that from the lithe sheep of North Africa. So instead at Morocco they use beef, carefully skimming off the excess fat as it cooks.

Such are the compromises entailed in preparing this kind of food so far from home. They have none of that hearty Berber bread, just French baguettes. The traditional pickled lemons are not available, nor is smen (salted butter) or khelea (a kind of beef jerky), all as essential in any self-respecting Moroccan kitchen as the numerous products of the spice markets.

Another failing at Morocco is the absence of a decent wine cellar. North African wines always taste thin and sour -- they're supposed to, it's considered more refreshing in the desert heat. And in that regard, neither the Balouane nor the four styles of Guerrouane -- red, white, rose and that North African specialty, gris -- disappoint. They do list a simple French vin de table, along with a Californian plonk, but do not count on either being in stock.

But in the end, none of this really matters. We should just count ourselves fortunate to have at least one decent place in town to enjoy the exotic but comforting flavors of good, honest Moroccan home cooking.

Those who live in the vicinity of Nakano are blessed by having such ready access to Tokyo's longest running and, overall, most satisfying Middle Eastern restaurant. With the sad passing of Hiroo's excellent but short-lived Hamadi, the funky, friendly Carthago [3-34-3 Nakano; Tel: (03) 3384-9324] is now our only source for Tunisian fare. But its scope is far wider than just the Maghreb: The entire span of the Mediterranean is covered, from the Levant to the Atlantic, via Turkey, Greece, Egypt and the Pays d'Oc.

Highly recommended.



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