My wife and I love debating our favorite restaurants in Cincinnati, and we enjoy discussing what single eatery best sums up the Queen City. One question we continually come back to – and one we’ve had to answer when friends and family come around – is what must-eat establishment makes the best go-to dining spot for a visitor.
Although many of our top restaurants make the list of contenders, the one place we always come back to is Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill – even though there’s no pork on the menu. Located in Clifton’s quaint gaslight district, this North African diner serves up not only some of the best Mediterranean cuisine in the city, but it also dishes out some of the most delicious eats in Cincinnati, period.
When we lived in CUF while studying at the University of Cincinnati, Marrakech was our premier haunt. We used to walk to it nearly three times a month, and it was one of the first restaurants we ate at when we moved to the city. Now that we live downtown, we still venture up Mount Auburn quite regularly to dine at this outstanding restaurant, as we did on Friday, January 20.
Like most great restaurants, the exterior of Marrakech looks simple and unassuming. The kitschy tagine pot, Moroccan flag and photographed tea setting decorating the entranceway belie the authentic, halal cuisine that awaits within. Nevertheless, the vibrant tapestries and Arabic music make the interior feel homey, and they transport diners to a world that feels thousands of miles away from the American Midwest.
To begin our evening feast, my wife and I ordered a pot of mint tea, a plate of baba ghanoush and a side of mixed Moroccan olives. For those used to drinking wine or beer with dinner, it’s important to remember that halal cuisine forbids alcohol; so, come thirsty for caffeine, not cocktails. The mint tea came to our table first, and we quickly began imbibing the rich and fragrant brew. The polished steel teapot and decorative glasses add an air of charm to the dining experience, and they set the stage for an excellent and authentic meal.
Next to come out were the baba ghanoush, toasted pita, olives and side salads – which accompany every entrée. Although Marrakech offers plenty of wonderful appetizers – including zaalouk, stuffed grape leaves and falafel – my wife and I can never pass up the baba ghanoush. The creamy and earthy tahini melds perfectly with the lightly smoked grilled eggplant, the subtle tartness of lemon juice and the slight spice of paprika. With a slice of toasted pita, there’s nothing more warming, satisfying or addictive.
As we waited for our main courses, my wife and I munched happily on the mixed Moroccan olives. While a few familiar Kalamata and green olives are included, the unique dried and salted black olives are the star of the dish. Much like the baba ghanoush before, the olives are incredibly addictive, and they always whet our appetite for more.
For entrées, my wife and I ordered bastilla and lamb tagine, accordingly. Bastilla, more than probably any dish on the menu, truly represents the authentic Moroccan flavors Marrakech is known for. Also translated as “pastilla,” this official dish of Fez combines succulent shredded roast chicken, flaky pastry dough, almonds and spices into a delightful meat pie.
Sweetened with honey and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, bastilla confounds and tempts the senses with its paradoxical yet unified flavors. At once sweet, savory and earthy, this masterpiece of Arabic ingredients and Mediterranean pastry melts in your mouth and balances perfectly on the palate.
Always one for traditional and hearty fare, I went for the lamb tagine. I’ve eaten this classic Moroccan dish at a number of restaurants throughout the years, and Marrakech’s interpretation is hands-down the best. On the one hand, the dish is rustic and unrefined, consisting of a single slow-roasted lamb shank, carrots and potatoes, yet on the other hand, the fatty and moist meat soften and enliven the simple root vegetables, creating a cohesive and sumptuous bite.
Occasionally, Marrakech adds prunes and onions to their tagine, but this time around they kept it simple and hearty – perfect for mid-January. Since I ordered my tagine with pita instead of the alternative rice, I was able to sop up all the decadent braising juices, making the dish good to the last morsel.
With only olive pits, empty plates and a mangled leg bone remaining, my wife and I left Marrakech stuffed to the brim and totally satisfied. Though we were too full on this trip to indulge in dessert, Marrakech offers two traditional sweet treats – baklava and chabakia (honey and sesame cookies) – that a first-time visitor shouldn’t pass up.
At only $46, including a tip, Marrakech Moroccan Cafe and Grill makes for a frugal feast, just one of the many reasons this restaurant is the perfect dining spot for any traveler to the Queen City. I hope you can take your own caravan to Marrakech and enjoy a taste of authentic North African cuisine.