When the sun sets in Marrakech, the darkness acts like a magician’s vanishing cloth. Gone are the cranes and the earth-moving claws; gone is the drone of hammers and saws. Even the raucous daytime traffic seems muted.
Lights go on all over the city at dusk, illuminating arches and doorways, revealing slivers of life in an ancient culture.
One such night, we took a taxi into the medina. This taxi, like most in Morocco, had long since lost its right side mirror. Small as it was, it barely fit through the narrow, serpentine streets. Children played in the street, dashing to the side just seconds before the car was on top of them; even when we passed within a hair of a man conversing on his phone, he didn’t so much as glance at us.
Our destination was a restaurant called Yacout, located in a riad. To understand the concept of a riad, picture a large square building with a smaller square cut out of its middle. Traditionally, the inner square was made up of living quarters, with narrow, rectangular rooms; the outer square was an open space, filled with a garden and fountains.
The medina is composed of hundreds of riads, built side by side, accessible only via narrow, twisting streets. In recent years, many riads have been converted into small boutique hotels. Yacout was a private residence for over 100 years, and was converted into a restaurant about 18 years ago. It is unquestionably the premier restaurant for traditional Moroccan food in Marrakech.
The taxi stopped in front of an unmarked door, where a man dressed in a jellaba stood guard. When we approached, he swept the door open with a flourish, and we stepped into a tiny foyer decorated with flickering lanterns. A young man in similar dress bowed and motioned for us to follow. He led us through corridor and up a spiral staircase, composed of ancient tiles the color of toast. The staircase wound up and up; eventually we were on the top of the building, on a rooftop terrace decorated with lanterns and potted orange trees. The city twinkled beneath us.
It occurred to me that Moroccan architecture echoes the nature of its people; Moroccans reveal themselves slowly, unwilling to divulge their secrets at once. Learning about this culture takes patience.
After a few moments, our guide led us back down the stairs and into one of the landing doors. A fountain bubbled in the middle of the room; a group of Gnawan men in traditional garb sat on rugs and tapped on homemade drums. We sipped drinks, feeling like we had just stepped on to a movie set.
Finally, our guide reappeared and led us to a round corner table covered in a white tablecloth strewn with rose petals and lit with a silver candlestick. Moments later, the food began to arrive. The first course was an assortment of small plates – small salads and little bites of traditional dishes. There were about ten plates; I won’t list them all, but they included green pepper strips marinated in a vinaigrette with bits of preserved lemon, a sweet tomato chutney, and a mound of sharply tangy black olives.
The second course was a whole chicken cooked with green olives. In three swift movements, our server removed the entire carcass of the chicken, leaving just a heap of meat in a savory reduced sauce. This is one of my favorite Moroccan dishes, but I knew there was a lot more food on the way, so I restrained myself from gobbling it down.
Each course was delivered in an enormous container shaped like a tagine, with a colorful woven top that the server removed to reveal the dish inside. The third course was lamb cooked with artichokes and green peas. The lamb was fall-apart tender, perfectly paired with the artichokes.
Then the couscous arrived. The couscous was of a very fine grain, topped with an assortment of vegetables – zucchini, pumpkin, carrot, parsnip - and served with a dish of broth to be spooned over the top as desired.
Each dish was beautifully prepared and presented, representing the best of Moroccan cooking, but it was enough food for five people, not two! We sat back after a few bites of couscous, exhausted with the chore of eating.
Oh, but there was still dessert. I didn’t think I could possibly fit in more, until they brought out something I had never seen before; a stack of paper-thin discs of fried dough drizzled with a milky sauce and sprinkled with ground, toasted almonds. It was crunchy as potato chips, and the sauce was only slightly sweet and contained a hint of rose essence. I loved it. It turns out that they call it b’stilla au lait, though it really isn’t like other types of b’stilla.
If you ever find yourself in Marrakech, get yourself to Yacoute after the sun goes down. The setting is nothing short of magical, and the food is superb. The whole evening represents the traditional Moroccan experience par excellence.
P.S. I hestitated to upload these pictures, as they do not adequately represent the gorgeous setting. The rooms were lit only with candles, so getting a good picture was nearly impossible, but perhaps these will convey just a hint of the atmosphere...