In the Cool, Dark East Village, An Enticing Whiff of Tangier

On a recent evening, under the solemn gaze of King Hassan’s young grandson whose portrait hangs over the bar, I met a friend at Chez Es Saada, a Moroccan restaurant in the East Village. The wrought-iron barstools, which have small seats covered in patches of Berber rug, are certainly pretty, but you can’t sit on them for more than a couple of minutes without being slowly and deliberately emptied onto the floor, like a character in a skit by Bill Irwin. As we waited for our table, a young woman strode in purposefully and gave her name to the bartender.

“I’m so sorry,” said the latter, looking up from the reservations book. “But you are so late we had to give your table away. I’m afraid we will have to seat you up here.”

“No way!” the woman bellowed, as if she had just been told to eat in the kitchen. “No! No! No! Let me talk to Robert …” With that, she disappeared down a flight of stairs in the back of the room, followed by two young men.

The bartender shrugged. “She’s an hour and 10 minutes late for her table.”

Not that in Morocco everyone always arrives on time. Nor, as I remember from the time I spent there several years ago, would they expect to get a table at all if they had booked without saying Insha’allah (God willing). If Allah wills it, your plans will be met; but you are not a free agent in the matter, so there is no point in getting upset, since between a plan and its being carried out, Allah often has all sorts of other plans. If, for example, on your way to Chez Es Saada, you ran into an old friend and decided to go to Balthazar instead, the person you stood up would understand. Most likely Allah would have willed something else for him, too, and he would not have been there, anyway.

Chez Es Saada is wildly popular, but it only seats 35 in the downstairs dining room-which is why, when you call for a reservation, you are likely to be told they can seat you at 6 P.M. or 11 P.M.-and why it’s O.K. to pull out a packet of Casa Sport (or any other cigarettes) for a few puffs between courses.

The restaurant is on the ground floor and basement of an old school building that has been converted to lofts upstairs. Rose petals are scattered on the Moroccan tile that leads to the basement where a gorgeous, friendly hostess in a long gold slip dress waits to show you to your table. The banquets are covered in striped Berber wool, the brick walls painted peach with blue alcoves, set with a fountain and giant Moroccan lamps. In the back is a lounge; the music gets louder as the evening progresses, veering between disco and North African. The customers are an odd blend of young and cool along with an older, Upper East Side crowd in business suits and velvet headbands.

Customers are not seated cross-legged on the floor at low, round tables, as they would be in Morocco. Nor are they expected to eat their food with the first three fingers of the right hand, a feat that can be difficult when it comes to couscous.

The couscous at Chez Es Saada was made not with meat or chicken but vegetables, simmered in a dark sauce lightly spiced with harissa and topped with toasted slivered almonds. The lamb tagine was good, too, thick and dark, with ginger, prunes and honey, accompanied by anise-flavored flatbread. Salmon, seared in a crust of Moroccan spices such as cumin and cracked coriander seed, was beautifully fresh and cooked on the rare side, as I like it.

Roast chicken, marinated in dried lime and aleppo pepper, was tender and juicy, although the grilled figs that it came with were a bit too charred. Merguez, a spicy lamb sausage that was a special of the day, was also delicious, served on a heap of mashed sweet and white potatoes.

A first course of Moroccan salads that included creamy eggplant and carrot salads and egg mayonnaise was a bit cold from the refrigerator from which it had been removed seconds before, plate and all. The best choice was fresh sardines. In Morocco, they grill them right on the harbor dock, fresh off the fishing boats. At Chez Es Saada, they come not on a slab of bread (as in the port town Essaouira) but on a salad of frisée in a mustardy dressing with black olives.

For dessert, there was a nice, old-fashioned chocolate pot de crème, a fine lemon tart and phyllo turnovers stuffed with honey and nuts that were 10 times as good as baklava.

The short wine list at Chez Es Saada is reasonably priced and has a couple of Moroccan choices that are very cheap. We decided on a red wine called Guerrounane.

Our waiter brought over the bottle and held it up so that we could read the label. “Oh, dear,” said my companion, looking discouraged. “On the bottle is one of those wine apologies that begins, ‘This full-bodied wine’ …” But the wine was actually very pleasant and smooth and went well with the spiciness and sweetness of the food.

Not everyone loves Moroccan cooking as much as I do. At the end of the last century, an Italian named Edmundo de Amicis described a wedding feast in Tangier. “Merciful heaven! My impulse was to fall upon the cook. Every shade of expression which might cross the face of a man suddenly attacked by colic, or on hearing of the sudden and unexpected failure of his banker, must have appeared on mine … I can give no ideas of the taste left in my mouth except by comparing myself to some unfortunate condemned to swallow the contents of all the bottles and boxes in a hairdresser’s establishment … huge dishes of inviting appearance, but everything swimming in the most horrible sauces, greasy, anointed, perfumed and prepared in such a manner that a comb seemed a more fitting instrument to dip into them than a fork.”

If he had dined at Chez Es Saada, perhaps he would have changed his mind. Insha’allah .

Chez es Saada *1/2

42 East First Street, between First and Second avenues, 777-5617

dress: Slip dresses, jeans

noise level: High

wine list: Short, well priced

credit cards: All major

price range: Dinner $15.50 to $19

dinner: Sunday to Thursday 6 P.M. to 2 A.M., Friday and Saturday to 4 A.M.

* good

** very good

*** excellent

**** outstanding

no star poor