2011-02-16 / Restaurant of the Week

LITTLE MOROCCO

This corner bistro features the exotic, flavorful cuisine of Morocco and the Mediterranean in a very informal setting. Warm weather offers plenty of outside seating and people watching on the corner of Steinway Street and 24th Avenue. The petite interior dining room is fine for a quick bite or a takeout meal. Little Morocco delivers to your home or office and the phone rings frequently with orders to go.

Driss Lazhar is the gracious owner of Little Morocco and always appears to be smiling as he greets the multitude of guests who stream in and out all day and night. Lazhar was born in Rabat but has lived here for 25 years and has as many years of experience in the restaurant business. He greeted my friend and I graciously as he ceremoniously prepared and served us delicious mint tea from a silver tea pot. This is a customary practice in Morocco and quite a lovely one, which should never be refused.

To start with, everything is made on the premises, by hand, using only the highest quality "halal" certified meats. You can see these meats yourself in the sparkling clean, refrigerated case as you walk inside the restaurant. Mouthwatering kebabs made with tender chunks of lamb, beef or chicken await you laced onto stainless steel skewers fashioned in Morocco. Their house specialty is merguez sausage, a thin, Moroccan sausage made with a mixture of ground lamb, beef and mild spices. Kefta are handmade meatballs made from lamb with parsley and herbs that is simply delicious.

All meats are prepared to order on the sizzling charcoal grill to impart even more flavor. Lazhar lavished us with a beautiful ceramic platter featuring an assortment of all the varieties of meats. I had heard so much about the merguez sausage so I tried them first. The blend of spices was perfect and not overpowering. Tomato and pepper dipping sauce was the perfect accompaniment along with warm, grilled bread. Even The New York Times agreed, when they voted Little Morocco as "The best merguez sandwich" some years ago. I would argue that the same is true for the kefta. The lamb and chicken kebabs were tender and succulent. Lazhar even had us try the tender lamb's liver and heart, sliced thin and quickly grilled…superb! All of these tasty meats are available as a platter, served with rice or French fries and salad for about $8, to stay or to go. Pile them onto a sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, onions and green olives for a hearty lunch for about $6. Little Morocco also makes fabulous falafel, which are chick pea fritters, served in a sandwich with tahini (sesame sauce), lettuce and tomato for just $4.50. Hummus, babaganoush (eggplant salad) or a combination of the two make a great vegetarian lunch or dinner.

Next to the grill is a steam table featuring slowcooked Moroccan specialties. Tagine is braised meat, cooked in a special clay oven with herbs and spices to render the meat supremely tender. Enjoy a roast chicken prepared this way, lamb shank, baby lamb chops or kefteatagine. Tagine is served with two side dishes, which may include roasted potatoes, peas or a traditional eggplant stew called zazlouk that was just delicious. The star of the show is a classic Moroccan dish called "couscous." Here in the U.S., most people think of couscous as the course semolina grain served as a side dish. In Moroccan cuisine, however, it encompasses the entire dish, with a slowly cooked lamb shank simmered with special herbs, carrots, turnips and sometimes raisins, along with the couscous grain itself. This dish takes hours to prepare and is only offered on Friday nights at Little Morocco. Well the stars were aligned that night and we feasted on this unforgettable dish.

Little Morocco's food is so good, they recently catered to the King of Saudi Arabia while he was staying in New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me and you. Let yourself explore the centuries-old cuisine of Morocco with all its traditions, such as two people eating from the same plate and drinking lots of mint tea, all with your right hand, of course. You will feel welcome and tell them the Gazette sent you. No alcohol please and cash only. Salaam.

LITTLE MOROCCO

24-39 Steinway Street, Astoria

718.204.8118

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