La Maison Arabe is nestled within Marrakech’s medieval Medina under the shadow of the Bab Doukkala Mosque and though little known now, it was once proclaimed by critics as one of the greatest restaurants in the world. This is the charming short story of its rise, regression and restoration.
Parisiennes, Susanne Larochette-Sebillon and her mother, had been holidaying in Marrakech in 1939 when WWII broke out. They were suddenly stranded, unable to return to France. The family, who owned Le Sebillon, a restaurant back in Paris, managed to get just enough money out of France to afford a riad in Marrakech’s old Arab quarter.
At that time, the ‘restaurant’ concept did not yet exist in Morocco, “I invented the restaurant in Marrakech. Before me there were no restaurants,” Madame Suzy has modestly claimed. However, as female foreigners who did not understand the language nor know the cuisine, they needed help. This help came in the form of Rhadija, a harem slave to the pasha of Marrakech, Si Thami el Glaoui. Luckily for the Larochettes, the pasha was a patron of Le Sebillon, so he was willing to hand them over Rhadija as a teacher, stipulating only that she return to his household to cook special feasts. Thus in 1947, complete with cook, their home became La Maison Arabe.
For over a generation, la Maison was Moroccan dining; it set the standard and it set it high, offering traditional cuisine consumed with correct ceremony. Madame Suzy was especially proud of one custom: “there was never any silverware. People ate with their hands, properly, or they went hungry.” It was not unusual to see, during the restaurant’s halcyon days, Winston Churchill, Queen Ingrid of Denmark, Jackie Kennedy or the Aga Khan there, eating with their fingers.
As the years passed, time took its inevitable toll on both Maison and Madame. In 1983, into her eighties and with her health beginning to fail, she was forced to close the restaurant. It remained abandoned for over ten years until 1994, when Frabrizio Ruspoli, an Italian nobleman who spent much of his childhood in North Africa, bought it from her. It took four more years and much refurbishment and redesign, but in 1998, what had been Morocco’s first real restaurant, reopened as Morocco’s first boutique hotel. It has still retained its culinary heritage however, with a new restaurant and state-of-the-art teaching kitchen where one can learn the secrets of Moroccan cooking from Laazizaa, the riad’s real dada – traditionally, dadas took care of the children and cooking in wealthy families and today, many cook for Morocco’s best restaurants.
The dining room draws heavily on Morocco’s Moorish memory, combining it with immaculate attention to detail and consummate craftsmanship. Walls finished with bright tadelakt (pigmented lime plaster smoothed with agate), blond bejmat brick-laid floors, lace-like latticed wood and wrought-iron moucharabie screens, hand-painted zouaké cedar ceiling resembling an Iranian mosque and chiselled plaster ornaments, gebs, all testify to this theme. A large open plan, tables set leisurely apart and high ceilings mean that the restaurant is indeed spacious. Nevertheless, this airy atmosphere does not come at the cost of intimacy: a focal fireplace; warm tones of yellow, gold and red; and soft, hand-woven fabrics and carpeting all contribute to an inviting environment. In front of the hearth, musicians take their places, playing Arab-Andalusian music on lute and guitar. The staff are dressed in the country’s customary costume.
The menu is exclusively Moroccan, which sat well with W and me, as we have come to truly adore it. Deciding between the many unusual and appetising combinations is difficult, but there are enough options to satisfy anyone’s sweet or savoury cravings. Choices range from standard tagines to special seasonal selections to house speciality couscous.
Entrées: Assortiment de Salades Marocaines et Pastilla – Aux Légumes de Saison. An ‘Assortment of Fresh Moroccan Salads’ comprised seven servings of fresh-cut, bright-coloured vegetables and fruits. There was a very nice moist, caramelised green pepper salad with tomato; an earthy eggplant mix of garlic, tomato and onion; and two variations of carrot – one, sweet mash and the other, spicy-honey-roasted. There were also original turnip and courgette preparations we had not yet tried on the trip. The centre bowl held lovely tomato jam flavoured with nutmeg and orange blossom, which I first had at Dar Marjana and now love. The seasoning for each was quite similar so I have not detailed them individually: generally, some blend of pepper, ginger, cumin, honey, sugar, lemon and cinnamon was applied with a parsley and/or mint garnish, creating intensely aromatic, warm and bitter-sweet dishes.
The pastilla, made of eggplant, courgette, onion, spinach and possibly potato, encased within filo pastry and deep-fried, paled in comparison to the pigeon version we had already had before. This was basically a large, round spring roll that lacked the rich, vibrant flavours characteristic of Moroccan food. Additionally, it was simply badly cooked, arriving disagreeably greasy.
Plats Principaux: Tagine d’Agneau aux Poires et Tagine de Coquelet aux Figues & d’Huile d’Argan. Two tagines made up the mains: one meat and one poultry. A ‘Pear Tagine with Lamb’ was excellent. The moist meat that melted off the bone matched well with succulent pears and a rich, intoxicating sauce spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and ginger. ‘Fig and Argan Oil Tagine with Baby Chicken’ was just as good. Worries that slow-cooking the bird would dry it out were uncalled for: deliciously juicy, tender coquelet was paired with hot, creamy figs and Argan oil that added a delicate, but definite, nutty depth. The tagines left the table spotless; even, or rather especially, both sauces had been finished off, mainly by me and my new and, I am sure, annoying holiday habit of filling the serving dishes with pieces of bread, soaking them in the lip-smacking gravies.
FYI, Argan oil, derived from Argan trees native to Southern Morocco, is highly prized and can be used for food, cosmetics and medicine; taste-wise, it is intensely nutty, similar to peanut butter, but also a little smoky and is a natural flavour and aroma amplifier.
Desserts: Pastilla au Lait & Amandes et Mousse au Chocolat. The sweet ‘Pastilla with Milk and Almonds’ looked impressive: layer upon layer of crunchy pastry, crème pâtissière concealed between each and all dusted with ground almond and cinnamon. Regrettably, tasting proved it less than satisfactory. The feuilles were a little thick, probably made from filo rather than warka pastry, and there was insufficient milk custard, making the dessert discomfortingly dry. (Again comparing it to Dar Marjana…) our previously eaten example had had warm milk added tableside and was incomparably tastier. Fortunately, the ‘Chocolate Mousse’ was good, very good. Generous scoopfuls of thick, dark, bitter chocolate covered with cocoa crumbs were delicious, but disappeared too quickly – actually, W practically polished it off single-handedly. Just to try some, I had to sneak/force my spoon in between her mouth and the coupe – but all’s fair in war and chocolate.
The meal was good, seriously better than our Thai tragedy at Bô & Zin but, though the Moroccan salads and tagines were on a par with Dar Marjana, la Maison could not match its consistency or wow factor. As an overall experience, the entertainment at the former – musicians, folk-dancers, belly dancer, even slapstick-comedian-waiters – and delightful service easily exceeded that of la Maison. Although never nice to end on a sour note, I must mention the service here, the awful service. We had what was probably the worst waiter I have ever been served by. I hate to single individuals out publicly, but this is a necessary exception: he was impatient, unhelpful, almost openly rude and sarcastic, constantly rolling his eyes, huffing and puffing like a frustrated child and I thought I could even feel an evident ill will directed towards us from him! The only mitigant was the minimal contact we had with him after he had taken our orders.