“This place is something to see,” she told us, describing a small, exclusive palace outside Marrakech that functions as both hotel and restaurant. “You must go.” We agreed, and she made dinner reservations for the following night. When we asked for directions, she narrowed her eyes. “What kind of car do you have?”
A Clio, we told her. She shook her head dismissively. “You’ll never make it in that. You need a quatre quatre.” She explained that only way to get there was an unpaved dirt road, with no streetlights or signs to guide the way. She was adamant that we couldn’t make it on our own, and arranged to have her driver pick us up.
The next evening, the driver picked us up from our hotel, as arranged. Safely ensconced in the 4x4, we quickly left the paved streets for a pitted, dusty track that led straight into the desert. The headlights revealed the ridged trunks of palm trees all around us; small rocks pinged the windshield. I gripped my jaw to keep my teeth from clacking.
"Just you wait," the driver told us as we bounced about. "Next time you come to visit, this track will be paved, and all this land will have houses on it."
Twenty minutes later, reached a high wall lit with lanterns. A guard opened the enormous wooden door, and we stepped through onto sand-colored gravel that crunched beneath our feet. A small grove of olive trees led to a series of broad stone steps lit with candles. We walked up the steps to another door, this one made of dark wood decorated with silver studs. The door swung open just seconds before we reached it, this time by a man dressed in a flowing white jellaba and a red cap.
The Ksar Char-Bagh built in a series of successively smaller enclosures; one door leads to another, which leads to another, each revealing a composition of carefully compsed arches, stairways and fountains. While the overall effect was grandiose, each element was understated and elegant. In many Moroccan buildings, we saw layer upon layer of intricate designs, patterns, and calligraphy, so densely packed that I often felt dizzy after just a few moments.
Here, the architects focused on fluid lines and shapes, minus the flurry of traditional patterns. It would be a stretch to call it modern; perhaps “modern romantic” might be more to the point. I won’t try to describe it in exact detail, because I won’t be able to do it justice. Even the photos on their web site don’t adequately capture what we saw that night.
After the promise of the gorgeous surroundings, dinner was something of a disappointment. The menu boasted a grand total of five items. The starter was a carpaccio of langoustines, which were pounded into a thin sheet, drizzled with basil-infused olive oil, and topped with a fine mince of mint, parsley, and chives. While it was delicious, I found the lack of options surprising.
The second course was a choice between lobster and filet. I chose the lobster, which was lightly roasted and drizzled with emulsified butter and served with a bulgur pilaf. The lobster was perfectly cooked, the sauce superbly spiced. The beef entrée wasn’t quite as successful; I tried a bite, and found it somewhat tough.
Desert was a sabayon surrounded by strawberry reduction. It tasted exactly like baked egg whites sopped up with strawberry sauce. Hmm.
The lack of menu choices seemed especially tragic in such a sumptuous setting. How did the ownership craft such an exquisite place and neglect to create a comparable dining experience? But we were happy nevertheless; the servers were gracious and affable, and brought us cups of mint tea to end the evening. We sat back in our chairs and soaked in the details of the room: gorgeous black tables with fat wooden spindle legs; a filigree brass chandelier; a curved ceiling that echoed the arches throughout the building; flickering flames that danced through a metal grate, creating a series of reflections on the tall glass windows.
The sky was thick with stars as we walked out. Just before we stepped through the outer gate, I caught sight of a bird cage hanging in an olive tree. A bird sat erect on a bar inside. Its feathers were shades of sand and white, and it stared at me with solemn eyes. Not an owl, but what? No one knew.
We climbed back into the 4x4, grateful that we didn’t have to find our own way back to the city.