Dining out in New York often seems like 50 percent theater—except at Moroccan restaurants, where it’s more like 75. By the time you contort yourself into a spine-challengingly low seat, gape at the jiggling belly-dancer, and admire your costumed server’s prowess at pouring perfect arcs of mint tea from great heights (from where you sit, any height seems great), food becomes an afterthought. This is emphatically not the case at La Maison du Couscous, a modest café and mecca of traditional Moroccan food worth the long pilgrimage to Bay Ridge on the R train.
In real-estate terms, La Maison is less house than studio w/EIK: a handful of glass-topped tables running along a thin-cushioned banquette separated from the cramped kitchen by a display case of prepared salads and jarred olives. If you’re looking for “atmosphere,” you won’t find it in a scattering of rose petals or tasseled pillows nestled in dark corners. Instead, it takes the form of soft strains of Arabic music and the equally mellow conversational tones of locals lingering over shot-size glasses of Moroccan coffee.
Moroccans at a Moroccan restaurant is a promising sign. Still, we were momentarily taken aback when we saw what looked like a burger posing on the menu as a “traditional Moroccan sandwich.” But the kafta—a few nicely seasoned, juicy ground-lamb patties on a fluffy French baguette smeared with garlicky peppers and tomatoes and dabbed with hot sauce—isn’t a timid concession to American appetites. It can’t be, with so many Moroccan customers ordering it. “That guy gets two at a time, with fries,” said our charming track-suit-wearing waitress, gesturing to the solo diner beside us. And so would we, if there weren’t so many other delectable things to try.
Starting with the spicy cracked green olives that come to the table with a dense, spongy disk of Moroccan bread, baked on the premises and built for scooping up spreadlike salads made from mildly spiced eggplant or cooked spinach. Chicken b’steeya, a sweet and savory pie stuffed with dark and white meat, giblets, ground almonds, and fragrant spices, is dusted with cinnamon and sugar; if the pastry dough was slightly chewy, the superrich flavor of the filling redeemed it.
But when you find yourself in an establishment called La Maison du Couscous, it’s only a matter of time before you’re ineluctably drawn to the main attraction. Couscous is the national dish of Morocco, where the steamed semolina grains are often rolled into balls and eaten with the first three fingers of the right hand (four or five is greedy and one is a sign of hatred, according to folklore). In Brooklyn, though, forks are provided, and so is harissa, the chili-pepper condiment that animates a mound of fluffy grains topped with long-cooked, toothsome lamb shanks or chicken, and various combinations of stewed onions, swollen yellow raisins, and soft chickpeas.
If couscous is all fluffy texture, and b’steeyas rely on labor-intensive pastry layers, then tagines—those aromatic stews cooked in shallow earthenware dishes with conical lids—are the earthy, succulent result of meat succumbing to its fork-tender fate. Morocco boasts more than 100 tagine recipes, and La Maison features fourteen of them, mostly made from skin-on, bone-in chicken or fatty lamb shanks, both remarkably moist and unctuous, and accessorized with plump velvety prunes and slivered almonds; or artichoke bottoms and green peas; or the tart contrast of preserved lemon and olives.
Moroccans have been known to eat honey-drenched pastries before a feast, and, true to form, our waitress treated us to a plate of homemade variations on the honey-and-almond theme while we waited for our meal one night. La Maison does big business in these confections; they’re stored in plastic-domed cake stands and wrapped in party-size packages to go. But have them there, like we did, with sweet mint tea, poured from a silver pot with only a modest flourish. Drama has its place, but you can’t chew the scenery.