Stylia, Marrakesh, Morocco
Until quite recently, the restaurant was an alien concept in Morocco. In a poor country, where family is all, it seemed a distinctly odd idea to eat food cooked by someone other than a female relative, and then to pay for it. The French, as brief colonial overlords, barely changed this, despite cementing what might now be called a ‘café culture’ and a taste for flabby croissants. As a result, most restaurants in Morocco are aimed squarely at tourists, and there is no good restaurant aimed squarely at tourists anywhere in the world.
G and I have been pottering round the country for a little over two weeks, and have run the full, briefish gamut of Moroccan dishes. The best things we’ve consistently enjoyed have been roadside barbecued brochettes of minced lamb, flecked with oregano and then stuffed, perhaps with onion and tomato, into the chewy oval breads you find throughout the country. The bulk of restaurant meals have inevitably comprised couscous, or tagines of lamb or chicken, and have swung from mediocre to downright awful. Couscous, in particular, has been consistently dire: clumpy semolina under overcooked wodges of carrot, potato, and big-seeded courgettes. The accompanying liquor is better – a chicken reduction flavoured, more often than not, with cumin and harissa. As for the tagines, well… decent enough though they were at first, there’s only so much you can do with them. And only so many of them you can eat. So it’s with something approaching exhaustion that we arrive at Stylia.
Curious name, for one thing: neither Arabic nor French. A hint that this place is even more touristy than most is bolstered by live oud music – which (like a lot of music, come to that) has its roots in the slave trade: in this case, the Senegalese bought and sold in Moroccan markets as late as 1912. It’s about twenty to eight in the evening, and the door is shut fast. The chap who showed us the way through the labyrinthine medina scuttles off, and we’re literally alone in a dark alley. We press a button that might conceivably be a bell. Four minutes later, someone appears, telling us that they don’t open till eight. OK. Can we make a booking for eight, then?
‘One moment.’ Off he goes. A couple of minutes.
It’s a big plastered room in a fifteenth century mansion, with glass chandeliers from Murano – naturally – and a water feature sloshing away in the centre. Rose petals are scattered everywhere: hall, corridor, floor, like a bombed florist’s. A couple of bottles of the country’s best beer, Casablanca, followed by a bottle of the localish Ksar, and it begins.
In the deathless words of Lonely Planet (which, it bears emphasis, is no Guide Michelin as far as restaurants go), ‘to many people, a discussion of Moroccan cuisine begins and ends with pastilla’. It certainly ends this one. Pastilla is possibly the least pleasant national dish I’ve ever eaten – and this one isn’t my first in Morocco. Here, it’s made with shredded pigeon (an alternative to the usual chicken) and, as standard, it’s layered in a flaky pastry with ground almonds and cumin. This concoction is then liberally sugared and dusted with, of all things, cinnamon. The pastry has a decent crackle, but the ratio of bone to meat is approximately 5:3 and, like all poultry bones, these are shardy and multi-shaped and niggling. Food through which the tongue must sift does not an enjoyable dish make. Apparently, pastilla is principally ‘reserved for special occasions, such as weddings’. That may well be true – although at the Berber wedding G and I were lucky enough to be invited to a few days ago, we had a fabulous dish of lamb baked with prunes, accompanied by noodles with shredded coconut and washed down with, um, Fanta. Perhaps pastilla, like the roast turkeys of Christmas or Thanksgiving, is restricted to rare occasions because, in all honesty, it isn’t that good to eat.
Next, and far better, is a tagine of lamb: a thick hunk of tender shoulder in stolid, cuminy sauce, a chunk of preserved lemon adding salt and the faintest citrus whiff. The meat is as soft as a baby’s thigh, though there’s too much for me. The waiter clears the plates by the table with an ear-splitting scrape.
Couscous arrives, and the grains are fluffy and distinct, there are sultanas and an onion marmalade and the kitchen has barely overcooked the carrot, potato and courgette. In fact, this is the best couscous we’ve had all trip; it’s just a shame that it should have come when our tolerance for the stuff has long reached stodgy saturation point. Unbelievably, pudding is meant to be another pastilla – au lait this time, which we had at La Maison Bleue in Fès.
Some orange à la cannelle is a safer bet: ripe oranges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Intrinsically Moroccan and a light, uninspiring end to dinner prepared by a kitchen on autopilot.
Stylia, 34 Rue Ksour, Marrakesh
Tel. +212 24 440 505
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Four course set menu for two, excluding drinks and service, costs 550 Dirhams (approx. £35)