From Morocco with love

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The six of us had no idea when we arrived at Aromas Café for dinner that we’d be waddling out three hours later feeling like we’d been to Morocco and back. We even left with more luggage than we came with—albeit, nothing we needed to declare with anyone other than our hungry partners back at home.

Owner Hassan Kaisoum stuffed us silly.

Four years ago, Moroccan-born owner Hassan Kaisoum moved Aromas from Fontaine Research Park to its current location in Barracks Road Shopping Center and brought a legion of fans with him. Known more for its efficient, yet elegant lunches, Aromas also serves dinner every night and Kaisoum is always there, charming guests with his personal service and authentic fare.

We were handed menus listing Mediterranean mainstays like falafel and hummus, but Kaisoum promptly whisked them away, opting instead to showcase the dishes of his Moroccan upbringing. After browsing the short wine list, we decided on Casa Blanca, a crisp Moroccan lager. It was the only Moroccan beverage on the list and we wanted our meal to be as authentic as possible, conveniently ignoring the fact that abstaining would have been the most authentic experience, as 99 percent of the population are practicing Muslims.

Soon dishes of beautiful, exotic, aromatic food started arriving. Far from subtle, Moroccan cuisine combines Berber, Moorish, Mediterranean and Arab influences, spotlighting the spices that were used as currency during the Spice Trade. Ras el hanout, for instance, meaning “top of the shop” in Arabic, blends anywhere from 10 to 40 spices into an individualized blend for which a shop or cook becomes known.

Delicate quail was rubbed with charmoula—a paste made with turmeric, cumin, paprika, parsley, cilantro, lemon, garlic and olive oil—then lightly grilled and served with jewel-like pickled turnips, beets and pomegranate syrup. Ras el hanout-rubbed shrimp were grilled and served with Habiba sauce (Kaisoum’s secret recipe, which he sells at gourmet stores around town) and preserved lemon—the tangy, salty condiment used throughout Moroccan cooking. Thinly-sliced eggplant was grilled until it was mahogany in color and served with sweet roasted peppers. And these were just some snacks.

We gasped when Kaisoum placed a phyllo-encased pie topped with sliced almonds, cinnamon and powdered sugar in front of each of us. This was the famous pastilla—an elaborate meat pie traditionally made with pigeon. That night, slow-cooked, shredded chicken gets mixed with onions and spices before being bundled up in layers of crispy, buttery dough and placed atop a sauce of caramelized onions, cinnamon, cumin and turmeric. It was sweet, salty, rich, warming and impossible to stop eating.

A cup of velvety smooth roasted tomato, carrot, ginger soup offered a reprieve from all the chewing. Next came the main event—the tagines. Named for the earthenware vessels they’re cooked in, tagines slowly braise tough cuts of meat with veggies, preserved lemon and dried fruits—a result of Morocco’s lack of refrigeration. We had merguez —lamb and beef sausages—served over creamy lentils, root vegetables and couscous, but it was the “wedding” tagine that wowed us. Fork-tender chunks of beef joined saffron, preserved lemon, dried prunes, boiled eggs and marcona almonds in this dish traditionally served at weddings. Why exactly? The almonds were thought to be an aphrodisiac. Nice idea, but at this point, we were feeling anything but amorous—we were positively stuffed. Of course, we had to taste the pan-seared salmon with tomato provençal, roasted peppers, olives and grilled lemon and then cleanse our palates with a small green salad dressed with a citrus-honey vinaigrette before surrendering.

Radio DJ Mike Bisceglia complained of a backache from the hunched focus he’d given his plate. City of Charlottesville COO/CFO Aubrey Watts joked that his scale would say, “One at a time, please,” when he weighed himself the next morning. Then dessert arrived.

There were plates of fresh dates, honey-drizzled walnut baklava, cashew fingers and shredded phyllo stuffed with pistachios on top of a tangy yogurt sauce lightly sweetened with pomegranate syrup. Dishes of thick, cream-cheese like Moroccan yogurt were anointed with honey, dried fruits and almonds and rounds of oranges were glazed with rosewater and cinnamon. We were at their mercy.

Just in time to relieve our torpor, Kaisoum appeared with colorful Moroccan tea glasses and a long-spouted silver kettle. Poured from great heights, the sweet mint tea’s froth was exactly what our distended tummies needed. We sipped and digested while the ever-energetic Kaisoum weaved around the restaurant like a cabbie in Marrakech, reciting his common refrain, “My pleasure, it’s a pleasure to have you here,” to each patron.

When life gives you lemons, make…
Preserved Lemons
5 lemons
1/4 cup salt

Quarter the lemons from the top to within 1/2" of the bottom, sprinkle salt on the exposed flesh, then reshape the fruit. Place 1 tbs. salt on the bottom of a mason jar. Pack in the lemons adding more salt between layers. Press the lemons down to release their juices and to make room for the remaining lemons. Seal the jar and let the lemons ripen in a warm place, shaking the jar each day for 30 days to distribute the salt and juice. Rinse before using.

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