It’s strange how a distinctive smell can evoke strong memories of times long past. When our waiter handed us the menus at Zitoune, a new Moroccan restaurant in the center of the meatpacking district, I was immediately transported to the alleyways of the medina in Marrakesh. It was the same sharp odor that assails you in the souk when you pass one of those shops heaped with bags, belts, embroidered slippers, poufs and chests studded with brass nails: freshly (but not always adequately) cured leather.
Zitoune is Arabic for “olive,” another commodity of the souk, where there are stalls that sell only olives-heaped in glistening piles of variegated hues, from blue-black to pale green-which the vendor spoons into cones of rough brown paper. Here, the olives are in a small tajine-a traditional glazed pottery dish with a conical lid-that’s brought to the table when you sit down, along with anise bread, olive rolls and the pungent leather menus.
Three months ago, Zitoune took over the premises formerly occupied by the unprepossessingly named (and short-lived) Menu, which before that was a French bistro, Le Gans. It took two years for the co-owner, Alain Bennouna-who got tired of staring at the crowds piling into Pastis across the street while the tables in his restaurant remained empty-to look to his Moroccan roots for inspiration. The decision has paid off. The new place finally has a buzz. It’s filled not just with the young and hip, but also older Village intellectuals with their grizzled hair and baggy sweaters. Maître d’ Saad Khal-laayoun, Mr. Bennouna’s nephew, patrols the floor, presiding over the room and greeting customers like a downtown version of Le Cirque’s Sirio Maccioni. The dining room still looks much like that of a bistro, with large mirrors hanging on bare brick walls, a long bar, and mullion windows giving onto the corner of Gansevoort and Greenwich streets. But Moroccan lamps with cheerful red and blue shades have been added, and traditional tajines, unglazed pottery, blue-green ceramic plates and hand-woven baskets are used for serving the food.
The service is friendly, although there can be waits between courses. At the next table one Saturday night, six cool-looking young Asians posed for pictures, which the waiter had offered to take for them. The waiter sported an impressive calligraphic tattoo on his upper arm, and I asked him what it was. “It’s my name, Yaseen, in Korean.” Why Korean? “Because I’m in love with a Korean woman,” he replied simply.
Zitoune’s chef and co-owner, Julian Clauss-Ehlers, is an Englishman who trained in France. He has subtly updated Moroccan cuisine, adding details and refinements to many of the traditional dishes. Moroccans like to combine savory with sweet, which they do in their tajines (stews), mixing meat and fruit, as well as in their pastries and pies. Briwats are little phyllo tubes that Mr. Clauss-Ehlers pan-fries after filling with crab and mungbean vermicelli. Delicate and light-better than spring rolls-they’re served with a spicy orange dressing and a thick tomato chutney that sets off the crab nicely. B’istiya is a flaky round pastry, usually stuffed with pigeon, that’s sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon. Mr. Clauss-Ehlers fills it with shredded duck, nuts and raisins. It’s disappointingly bland, like the sort of thing dished up for tourists in second-rate Moroccan hotels.
But there are no complaints about the crisp chunks of deep-fried cod served with a relish of diced cucumber (wrapped nouvelle-style in a paper-thin cucumber slice) and a creamy, rich mayonnaise made with a blend of Moroccan spices, cilantro and parsley. I like this dish better than the skewered shrimp, grilled and served hot on a cold wild rice and avocado salad-a strange mixing of temperatures. The platter of traditional Moroccan salads-carrot, chickpea and spicy eggplant-is perfectly pleasant. But the updated carpaccio of lamb res el hannout is a gem: thin circles of meat sprinkled with a Moroccan spice mixture and served with a mound of couscous salad with cinnamon and raisins, and a dressing made from fresh mint and harissa.
Short ribs, which are painstakingly emptied onto the plate from a small earthenware vessel that looks like a miniature Ali Baba urn, are overwhelmed by cumin. Grilled marinated lamb, on the other hand, suffers from a lack of spices. The person eating it reached over for my harissa sauce, which comes with the couscous. The grains in this dish are light and fluffy, but the seven vegetables piled on top of them are virtually indistinguishable (almost like British vegetables in the old days). Even the traditional bowl of broth on the side fails to perk up this lot.
But all is forgiven when you taste Mr. Clauss-Ehlers’ lamb tajine. This is a great dish, made with melting pieces of lamb in thick, dark sauce, with caramelized quince and toasted Israeli pearl couscous. It’s hard to choose between this and the veal cheeks, which are simmered with dates, almonds and honey, a concoction out of the Song of Solomon. The Cornish hen is juicy, enlivened by a side dish of spinach bakoula, simmered with preserved lemon and green olives. It’s worth getting a side order of merguez, too, a spicy lamb sausage that arrives in a coil.
The inexpensive wine list has plenty of good choices in the $30 range to go with this food. I’d like to see some Moroccan wines, too.
For dessert, the chocolate-cappuccino mousse is outstanding, zapped with res el hannout spices that bring out the flavor of the chocolate. Poached figs look pretty but are tasteless, served with Moroccan pancakes and honey and black currant sauce. I am not bowled over by the spiced couscous with vanilla ice cream (a Moroccan answer to rice pudding, and not nearly as good), or the orange cake, made with layers of sponge alternating with orange mousse, which seemed to have lingered too long in the refrigerator.
Zitoune is a welcome addition to this rapidly changing neighborhood. The prices are right (there are no main courses over $20), and so is the friendly atmosphere. If it gets too successful, who knows? Maybe Keith McNally will have to follow Mr. Bennouna’s example and start serving British food at Pastis.
46 Gansevoort Street
Dress : Casual
Noise Level : Fine
Wine List : Reasonably priced, mostly French and American
Credit Cards : All major, except Discover
Price Range : Brunch, main courses, $7 to $13; lunch, $7 to $13; dinner, $16 to $20.50; $25 prix fixe (includes glass of wine); tasting menu, $42.50
Lunch : Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m.
Dinner : Monday to Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, to midnight; Sunday, to 10:30 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor