It was after 11 P.M. when we showed up at L’Orange Bleue, a new Moroccan restaurant that recently opened on a dark corner of Crosby and Broome streets. But there was a knot of people hanging around the bar at the front; and the dining room, which has lacquered burnt-orange walls with cobalt blue accents and is hung with Moroccan lanterns that cast a romantic glow, was three-quarters full. The maître d’ showed us to a table right under a speaker that was pumping out rock music. Great! This, along with wooden floors that bounced the sound back, made conversation virtually impossible. (I had just sat through three hours of Ragtime , which one critic had told me was the best musical he’d ever seen, and I had a thing or two to say about it.) Luckily, there was a marginally quieter table toward the back, and we settled down and ordered a bottle of a Rioja …
“C’mon everybody! Time to go to Moomba!” shouted a young woman across the way. The people at her table rose in a body and went out into the street.
Perhaps in the attempt to emulate the success of Chez Es Saada in the East Village, L’Orange Bleue bills itself as a Moroccan restaurant. It is owned by Vincent Boitier and Pierre Casaux, who used to work at Provence, a French bistro a few blocks away in northwest SoHo. You can’t help liking this restaurant-it’s friendly, cozy and fun. But Moroccan? Serving Argentine shell steak, salmon tartare, linguine with pesto sauce? Not exactly the cuisine of the Berbers.
Our waitress came over to recite the specials of the day. “We have salmon coated with Moroccan spices. But don’t worry, it’s not spicy at all,” she added reassuringly, like an Indian waiter confronting a table of tourists for whom “vindaloo” is a pejorative word. (In fact, Moroccan food is not particularly spicy, unless you douse it with harissa sauce.)
On this particular evening, we had a good, but rather un-Moroccan dinner, starting with a salad of romaine, orange, walnuts and Roquefort, tossed in a dressing scented with rosewater. There was nothing wrong with the trio of salmon tartare, smoked mackerel and crab cake sprinkled with truffle oil. I also liked the red snapper, which came with mustard greens and a fig-balsamic sauce, and the cod, baked in parchment and served with a wonderful combination of couscous and roast beets. The chocolate mousse was deliciously French, as was the sorbet.
A few nights later, two other friends and I found ourselves under the loudspeaker once again, only this time it was worse because the restaurant was packed and no matter how often we asked them to turn the music down, it went right back up. Nearby, a birthday party was in full throttle, and the guests were wearing bobbing silver feelers on top of their heads that I felt sure must have been interconnecting radio phones so they could talk to each other.
“God, I hate SoHo!” exclaimed one of my friends, who lives on the Upper East Side. But we pressed on, and when the appetizers arrived, she was somewhat mollified by the bowl of plump mussels served in a delicate curry and fennel sauce, and a bracing salad of apples, endive and walnuts. Alas, the one seriously Moroccan dish we tasted, chicken tajine, was a disappointment, surprisingly bland and unassertive. But the baby chicken was unexpectedly delicious, cut into crisp, golden chunks that were tender and moist inside and served with a typical Moroccan garnish of preserved lemons. A special of the day, very fresh grouper, was coated in chermoula, which filled the air with the seductive aroma of coriander.
My friends and I were getting a little hoarse by the time desserts arrived, but as we tucked into a lovely apple tart and fromage frais, one of the owners started to push back the tables in the middle of the room. All of a sudden, the music was turned up even louder, and people started dancing. Instead of a plate of petits fours to end the meal, the waiter brought a silver stand filled with nuts to the table. One of the owners was a terrific swing dancer and went around the room dancing with one customer after the other. Suddenly this was our kind of place, and we didn’t want to leave.
“Let’s order another glass of wine,” said the friend who had wanted to walk out at the beginning of the evening.
The last time I was in Morocco, I went to a party in Casablanca given by a lawyer (a woman, no less), and when the chairs were pushed back after an incredible feast of pigeon pie, lamb mechoui and couscous, the men just sat there drinking Scotch and Coca-Cola and watching as the women, most of whom were wearing Western clothes, belly-danced en masse. By contrast, the dancing (like much of the food) at L’Orange Bleue was Moroccan-ish, but it is doing just fine without the belly dancing, not to mention the way it ended with our hostess being carried around on a large brass tray like a bride at a Moroccan wedding.