Said Benjelloun is the sort of host who will have you eating out of his hands—literally.
Once you’re seated, shoes off, on a cushion at one of the low tables under the sumptuous red-&-blue tent that drapes the dining room,
the gregarious, Fez-born chef-owner of Palais Casablanca may just plop right down next to you with a conical silver tagine full of just-baked bread. He’ll describe the Moroccan custom of making a wish on the first bite, silently, over one’s shoulder. Bringing over your salad course, he may demonstrate native dining etiquette by tearing off a chunk of that bread with his own fingers and dipping it in a baba ghanoush–like mound of zaalouk for you to try. At meal’s end, he’ll sprinkle your palms (& face, & scalp) with rosewater & orange flower water from a pair of slender silver pitchers, then hug you goodbye.
In the interim, you’ll have savored the stuff of ancient empires & epic legends, flavors that conjure sun-drenched souks & dusty hookah dens from the Mediterranean to the Sahara. It is, of course, the characteristically heady spicing that lends Moroccan cuisine its evocative power: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, paprika, & so on abound, sometimes in a blend known as ras-el-hanout; saffron, ginger, & honey are also prevalent. An array of tagines—stews slow-cooked in the iconic aforementioned pots, usually clay, for which they’re named—comprise the vast majority of entrées offered by Benjelloun & his wife Kaoutar (along with brochettes, i.e., kebabs). They exemplify another, related hallmark of North African–Arab cookery, namely a balance between savoriness & sweetness achieved by the incorporation of dried and otherwise preserved fruits—apricots, prunes, raisins, lemons—into the mélanges of meat or fish, veggies, nuts, &/or olives.
But lesser-known b’stella (to use one of many transliterations) takes that contrast to a enchanting extreme.
According to Benjelloun, it’s traditionally served as an appetizer as weddings, but I could easily make a regular meal of the circular pastry, composed of phyllo dough stuffed with all kinds of goodies: here, the b’stella royal contains shredded chicken with scrambled eggs, ground almonds, & artichoke hearts. Then it’s covered in cinnamon and powdered sugar, which combine with the cooking juices to soak the bottom layer of phyllo—& the fingers with which you scoop it up—in syrupy goodness.
I’m also partial to the bissara—a fava bean purée seasoned with olive oil, cumin, & paprika that’s offered only at lunch—
and to the pungent, cinnamon-&-rosewater-sprinkled cold sliced beets on the salad platter.
A couple of caveats: though it’s listed on the menu, Palais Casablanca does not in fact serve wine, only juice & customary pots of sweet mint tea. It also does not serve à la carte dinners on Fridays & Saturdays, presenting instead a four-course prix fixe. So avid tipplers are in for a long night—but at least the belly dancers provide some measure of intoxication, and Benjelloun’s hospitality the warm afterglow.