Location: 665 Washington Road, Mount Lebanon. 412-563-5687. www.kouskouscafe.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.: Tue.-Sat. dinner 5:30-10 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads and starters: $3-9; entrees: $16-23
Atmosphere: Intricately intimate
First of all, the name of this eatery is fun to say. Second, the venue is a jewel box of a restaurant, the kind that takes your senses on an hour-long vacation to the country whose cuisine it serves. Which, third of all, is Moroccan. Owner and chef Abdel Khila has created not just an ethnic restaurant, but an excellent restaurant that specializes in northern African cuisine.
Morocco is a true cultural crossroads, its distinctive culture inflected by European, Mediterranean and subcontinental traditions. So while there may be hummus, couscous and lamb on the menu, there are also western Mediterranean staples such as sardines, ratatouille and duck.
The dinner menu mostly eschews clichés like kebab and falafel (there's one kebab on each of the lunch and dinner menus), instead offering sophisticated preparations such as lamb osso bucco and salmon in sharmoula. The effect isn't quite fusion -- presumably proximity, trade and colonialism have all influenced Moroccan cuisine -- but it certainly feels like fine dining.
The space itself is tiny, with mirrors on one wall reflecting the sparkling decor on the other: colored glass lanterns, wall panels of exquisite geometrical tile, a wooden frieze painted with an arch motif, and distinctive paintings that show individual vision, not just cultural clichés. The effect is so pretty, you might not mind how tightly packed the 28 seats are -- to one another, and to the open kitchen in the rear.
Our small table struggled to hold the many starters we couldn't resist. After a basket of wonderful crusty, chewy bread, we relished a perfectly composed spinach salad, punctuated with the usual strawberries, gorgonzola and candied walnuts. But the dish was made truly brilliant with hot-off-the-grill white asparagus, providing a not-quite-savory counterpoint to the other, slightly sweet ingredients. A cup of harira, "the staple Moroccan soup," was a revelation. Poised somewhere between a meat stew and lentil soup, the harira was richly flavored with lamb and pureed lentils, hearty but not quite thick. This is a recipe we can definitely envision enlivening the home-cooking rotation.
The Moroccan platter featured a triple play of a by-the-book hummus, eggplant zaalouk (similar to ratatouille) and tak-tooka, a roasted-pepper relish. The platter was served with not enough crisp toasted pita chips. But we loved the vegetal focus of the earthy zaalouk and the garlicky-sweet tak-tooka, as well as the small green salad served alongside. Combined with a little cheese and a stack of pitas, this platter would make for a great sandwich board.
Our final starter was a dish that's ubiquitous on the Mediterranean coast, yet so rare as to be a delicacy here: grilled sardines -- large, fresh ones, not the little things unpacked from a can. The fish were served whole with a bit of char from the grill still clinging to their skins, succulent meat within, and just enough fresh, bright flavor added by the lemon brown-butter and rosemary-caper sauce. The large capers were a nice touch, but we could have used more than one grilled slice of lemon for three whole fish.
The menu promises "crispy oven-roasted duck" for the duck in apricots, and the kitchen delivered. Jason was impressed by how the skin held up beneath a thick, pureed sauce of apricots and onions. Two whole legs were beautifully cooked, and the onion cut the fruity sweetness of the apricots without adding sharpness.
Angelique's couscous tfaya played a similar theme. In this dish, a leg of lamb so tender the meat practically gamboled off the bone was served in a sweet-spicy sauce studded with caramelized onions, plump and juicy golden raisins, and whole roasted almonds, accompanied by couscous. Notes of clove and nutmeg danced with more piquant seasonings and the sweetness of fruit and sugar in this excellent dish.
We were disappointed only with the cooked -- or, more accurately, undercooked -- vegetables that came with both our dinners. Primarily gourds and tubers cut in large chunks, they were beyond firm, and one piece of potato was effectively raw. It was an odd misstep from an otherwise confident kitchen.
But don't let this keep you from Kous Kous Café. We're already planning to go back to partake of the "café" aspect of this fine establishment, which features beverages such as French-press coffee and Moroccan mint tea. For lunch, dinner or an out-of-the-ordinary café break, Kous Kous welcomes you with the delicious flavors and gorgeous colors of Morocco.