Marrakech Expressive

Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro

3940 Fourth Avenue #110, Hillcrest

Maybe I've got Moroccan stardust in my eyes, but I think I've found the ideal neighborhood restaurant. The food at Kous Kous is delicious, authentic, and healthful -- and a bit too exotic to readily cook at home. The atmosphere is relaxing and sensual. The staff run the restaurant as though they're entertaining friends -- and entertaining is an apt description. You feel as if you're enjoying an intimate dinner party at the home of bright, witty friends who keep you laughing as they teach you about the cooking of their homeland.

A perceptive reader, L.M., clued me to Kous Kous's existence; otherwise I'd never have noticed the place. It's got an electric sign at street level, but the restaurant itself is down a short flight of stairs, next to a glittery "We buy Rolexes" pawnshop.

Most San Diegans, when they think of Middle Eastern food, envision generic Greek-style cuisine or think of our excellent local Persian restaurants. Moroccan cuisine -- from North Africa rather than Asia -- is different. Where Persian food is generally mild, herbal, and earthy, Moroccan flavors are intense but subtle, hinting of the stronger tastes of dried spices.

If Kous Kous offers an authentic menu, it also presents the cuisine differently from typical Moroccan restaurants (including Marrakech in La Jolla, our only other local representative). Moroccan cooking usually comes with a strong dose of touristic "Arabian Nights" atmosphere, with seating on floor cushions at low tables and obligatory belly-dance performances. At Kous Kous you find a spacious bistro-style room with a small lounge, Oriental-fabric cushions, sofas and rugs near the entrance, a wooden bar along one side, and a dimly lighted dining room, conventional tables and chairs set over a thick faux-Persian green floral carpet. The hanging lanterns cast lacy shadows like butterfly-wing patterns onto the ceiling, and world music plays softly in the background. Don't know about you, but I find it a relief that no skinny blonde dressed up like Scheherazade is gonna come shimmying around to interrupt the meal.

The menu structure is different, too. Instead of the standard stuff-your-face four-course prix fixe, you choose á la carte from a list of a dozen-odd favorite dishes of Marrakech, where the chef-owner hails from. Since my visit, the menu has expanded -- each week, Moumen includes a new dish. The latest is b'stilla, a filo-crusted chicken pot pie topped with cinnamon, almonds, and powdered sugar; most Moroccan prix fixe restaurants serve this delicacy between the soup and the entrée.

The passengers on this run of the Marrakech Express were the Lynnester, Samurai Jim, and a newcomer to the gang, 747 Stu. It was a quiet weeknight, so while we were deciding what to order, the chef-owner came by our table to explain the dishes and answer any questions. "My name is Moumen -- it's easy, it rhymes with Newman," he said. ("Noumen?" I wondered, drifting off to Plato, or maybe Pluto.) "Newman -- the guy on Seinfeld," said Lynne, as if mind-reading my drift. "Aaagh, no!" Moumen said. "Not him! Newman as in Paul!" He went on to give us a cheerful crash course in Moroccan food appreciation, describing every menu item.

A basket of warm pita triangles -- soft and fresh -- arrived at the table first, along with a relish plate of sweet chopped poached carrots and kalamata olives. We began with a vegetable appetizer plate called "Chutney Sampler." "They're not chutneys at all," said Moumen, "but a trio of mezze dips to spread on pita, if you like." One was a paste of roasted eggplant seasoned with cumin and lemon juice; it sent Lynne into a fit of passion and pleased the rest of us mightily. Another featured a spread of gently poached seasoned carrots, again of amazing sweetness, seasoned with ginger. The third was a pipérade of roasted, peeled bell peppers and sautéed onions, so refreshing that I promised myself that henceforth I would let no pipérade at home go unpeeled.

Sh'lad is a fresh tomato mixture served as a bruschetta on soft baguette. "The bread is a concession to American tastes," said Moumen, "so that it will seem more familiar." Overfamiliar, it turned out. "Crostini just don't do it for me anymore," said Lynne. "It's better on pita," said 747 Stu. We had a chance to test this hypothesis, because our third appetizer, Moroccan quesadillas, substituted pita for tortillas. We chose a filling of caramelized onions and mild melted cheese, which came with a ramekin of the sh'lad ingredients minced into a salsa for topping. The other fillings include samples of the chicken and the lamb entrées. Whichever you choose, these would be great noshes if you come in just for a bite.

Morocco's most memorable entrée is probably the humble lamb shank tagine (a Moroccan stew or braise, cooked in a clay vessel with a saucer-like bottom and a peaked "hat"). The lamb is braised for more than four hours, until perfectly tender, and served with almond slivers, prunes, and a lamb-broth sauce sweetened with a touch of honey. The meat gains an edge from a spice rub called Ras al Hanout. "Only in Marrakech do you find this spice," said Moumen. "It's in the grocery stores there, but in other cities you don't see it at all. My mother sends it, or my sister brings me a kilo whenever she comes to visit." Here, the shank is of moderate size, from a younger lamb. Remarkably, given how fatty shanks usually are, there was not a trace of grease in the enchanting sauce. Since Moumen makes all the tagines in the morning, the flavors have a chance to blend before they're gently reheated to serve on order.

Hit Number Two on the Kous Kous hit parade is Chicken Mu'hammer, a braised half-chicken with quartered green olives and slivers of preserved lemons. The cut lemons -- peel and flesh together -- are heavily brined in kosher salt, then stored in olive oil. The intense, complex flavor they develop can't be described but must be tasted. Like the lamb, the chicken is cooked gently and slowly (90 minutes in a low oven). Moumen told us how his mother taught him to make it: She used little liquid but periodically spooned the broth over the top of the chicken to keep it moist -- but never so wet that the liquid could steal flavor from the bird. Hence, Kous Kous's version has less sauce than other renditions of the dish that I've tasted, but what there is, is alluring.

Once the tagines have started cooking in the morning, Moumen then marinates his kebabs (steak, shrimp, fish) in various seasonings. They're cooked to order over a charcoal grill. "Not gas!" Samurai Jim exulted. "Real charcoal, which gives it flavor." We chose the filet mignon kebabs but didn't specify doneness, so they came cooked to medium. (Since Moumen and company are trying to adapt to American tastes, I think they should ask how done diners want the meat and be prepared for rare.) Shrimp kebabs, of medium-size, ordinary-quality shrimp, come coated with charmoula, which is Moroccan for "sauce," says Moumen -- in this case, a lemony tomato mixture. We found the dish decent but outclassed by the bravura treatments of the lamb and chicken.

Kebab dishes come with a mixed green salad with refreshing, lemony dressing. All entrées also come with couscous, served on a separate plate so we could each take as much or as little as we liked. Made from scratch the old-fashioned way, the grains are firm and fluffy (rather than soggy) and taste of the mild, sweet vegetable broth they've been steamed in. The topping is an array of raisins, garbanzos, bell pepper, and carrots -- and on the side, you get a ramekin of thin, mild hot sauce (based on the veggie broth, plus house-pickled jalapeños) to spoon over it. (This is a fixture in Moroccan homes, but not in most restaurants.) I usually find couscous oversalted but bland to boredom. Here, every bite was fascinating, with clean, sweet flavors. (Those who want couscous as a main dish can now get it in the vegetable version or mixed with lamb or chicken.)

Morocco was formerly a colony of France, so unlike, say, the Saudis, Moroccans not only drink wine, they grow and bottle it. (One area of the country has a climate similar to Sonoma.) Moumen plans to expand the wine selection to include French and Moroccan wines, but currently the list reads like the middle shelf at Ralphs -- dominated by familiar, unthrilling California bottlings. "I'm looking at the 'Interesting Reds' section," said Lynne, "and there's nothing interesting there." Lynne and I both spotted a David Bruce Pinot Noir, mellow and complex. She didn't say anything, but I knew she had to have it. Given the modest price of the food, I decided to splurge a bit, and it was the right wine for the cuisine.

Moumen's big brother Paul, a restaurateur in New Zealand, had taken off time from his own businesses to help Moumen open Kous Kous. As Paul cleared the table, we told him we wanted doggie bags for everything, saying, "This food is too good to waste a morsel of it." "In Morocco, we'd do this," he answered, pantomiming rolling up the tablecloth with everything in it.

For dessert, the house-made choices are fresh berries and crème brulée. (There's also a nightly pastry purchased from nearby Bread & Cie.) The crème brulée is light and creamy, not eggy, arriving with a large strawberry exuding its juices in the center. I find it one of the few brulées worth eating. Even better was a bowl full of fresh berries with a splash of Grand Marnier and fragrant rosewater -- nothing added (not even sugar) and nothing more needed. It was a perfect ending to a light and sumptuous meal. And this furnished another reason that Kous Kous is the ideal neighborhood restaurant: You don't need to save your money and energy to eat there on a special occasion. You won't waddle out overstuffed and broke, merely well fed and well entertained.

ABOUT THE CHEF

"I was the youngest child in the family," says Moumen Nouri, "so I spent a lot of time with my mom in the kitchen. I liked being in the environment of cuisine, and when I finished high school I decided to go to culinary school, the Hospitality School of Marrakech. It's a three-year program, and you choose whether you want to work in the kitchen or the front of the house. First year you study everything, and I did the last two years in international cuisine. Then I went ahead and finished college at government university in Tangiers, studying hospitality management. My goal was not only to cook but to own a nice restaurant.

"I didn't think about coming to the States until I'd been working in Morocco for about a year after college. I was testing the waters for opening a restaurant, but things there -- the business mentality -- were a little too slow for me. So I came here. I worked as a manager at Roy's at Pebble Beach and at a nice place in Carmel. For a couple of years I waited tables at Sheerwater while I worked on my business plan and saved money to open the restaurant.

"It's a new concept, what I was working on, and I'd been thinking of it since university. Every Moroccan who opens a Moroccan restaurant, whether in the States or in Morocco, they do it the way we used to eat 100 years ago -- low seats, eat with fingers, all that. We Moroccans don't like to sit on the floor either! Some of these restaurants are successful, but they're successful with tourists that eat there once a year. I wanted to make it less of a big event, because I wanted more Americans to have access to my product -- our traditional cuisine, but served in a more comfortable setting. So I'm doing bistro tables, silverware, no dancers -- although maybe I'll have dancers at midnight sometime. I wanted to add a touch that's my own, and that's world music, which I grew up loving. And I designed everything. It was really hard to get the color green I wanted for the wall.

"Most Moroccan restaurants have a four- or five-course menu and charge $60 or $70 for it. The owners are making good money, but I don't want it to be some kind of privilege to eat our cuisine. I don't care about making a lot of money. I care more about making our food accessible. Our culture is about hospitality and bringing people in to your house and sharing food with them. That's why I want this to be a place where people come to see us once a week, not once a year. I'm so happy to see people coming back 10, 12 times. I tell them, 'Come back just to hang out with us. Have an appetizer and a glass of wine.' I don't want anyone to feel pressured to eat five courses.

"I'm still expanding the menu. I just added a beef tagine [stew] with fresh artichoke hearts, green olives, green peas, and preserved lemons. That's the first dish my mother makes for me when I go home. And I've had b'stilla as a special several times. People go crazy for it, so I'm adding that to the menu, too. It's labor-intensive but well worth all the hard work. I love watching people who are eating it for the first time. 'What...is this dessert?' they ask, because the top is covered with sugar, cinnamon, and almonds. And I say, 'No, it's not dessert -- welcome to Morocco!'"

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