...all the training in the world won't train someone to go the extra mile. But that is what we got at El Bahia."
If you're trying to book a table at El Bahia, you'll have to be a party of four or more as twosomes have to rely on the will of Allah. If you're not there before 7pm, all the tables are gone; luckily, I was blessed and made it in time to nab one.
I was with a foodie friend who's happy to experiment, making him the perfect guest for a Moroccan restaurant. We ordered a couple of gin-and-tonics with delightful 1:l proportions. Hardly exotic you may say, but they were invented in India by the British as the quinine helped prevent malaria. "Not that we have to worry about that in Ireland," remarked my companion, "you're easily the most poisonous thing here and there's still no cure for you."
Coincidentally, a cure was just what I was looking for and our superbly informed waitress guided us to some north African wine. We ordered a bottle of S'De Sirona Du Maroc, Domaine Ouled Thaled 2006, a syrah which had a big nose but lacked the expected depth of spice. It carried enough kick to match the food though.
Morocco draws its culinary history from a complex past. From Roman antiquity to contemporary France and Spain to the Arabic, Berber and Saharan cultures, it's no wonder Moroccan food has such a wonderful depth of flavour. But could El Bahia deliver on the rich culture it represents? Traditional soups such as harira are available. They are made with tomatoes, chickpeas and tons of coriander as well as mussels in sharmoula. Sharmoula – often spelt chermoula - is a highly flavoured mixture of finely chopped onion, garlic, parsley and spices and combines excellently with shellfish.
To start, I had the "sardines marinated in spices, lightly fried in olive oil and splashed with lemon juice". This rather Spartan description greatly underplayed the dish. The fresh sardines had a wonderful scale of flavours, from the dark spice stuffing and meaty oily fish to tang of citrus, made all the better by the crispy skin. A superb starter.
My foodie friend ordered the mergues sausage (aka merguez) which was served with a spicy but light tomato sauce. This was a hearty and flavoursome starter if a little less of a surprise to adventurous palates.
For the main course, I ordered the fish bastilla, a complex dish of spiced fish, vermicelli and chermoula baked in an envelope of filo pastry. A good description by our waitress had led me to this dish, but all the training in the world won't train someone to go the extra mile. But that is what we got at El Bahia. I had considered ordering couscous instead of the accompanying salad and the waitress explained it would be no problem but she felt the dish would be too dry and worked far better with salad. A nice touch; the salad was a 1980s disaster, but she was right in her advice.
The bastilla itself has many different flavours and lacks the lightness of touch you'll find in modern fish dishes. It's closer to a heavy but satisfying fish stew with the interesting addition of green olives to the prawns, white fish and sweet spices.
I didn't spot chicken tajine on the menu, but it is probably the most accessible and popular north African dish, and is made with preserved lemons.
We ordered the Elham bi Tmar, a tajine of lamb cooked with figs and dates. The cone-shaped top of the tajine dish makes a drarnatic presentation and helps contain moisture in the long cooking process. It is this process that helps deliver a richness of flavour and tenderness beyond any roast lamb. We did feel the proportion of lamb to sweet figs was a little unbalanced, as we could have done with more meat. But this was truly some of the most beautifully perfumed lamb I've ever tasted. Superb.
For dessert, we could have ordered fresh fruit or even cheesecake but settled for traditional Moroccan sweets of honey pastries, pistachio and desiccated coconut, which I love with a good strong espresso coffee. A wonderful end to a fragrant meal.
In a nice touch, at the end of the meal we were given bachnika. They look like the dried heads of thistles, and you pluck a stamen and use this as a toothpick.
The restaurant is divided into different dining areas with special booths for larger parties. Diaphanous drapes of luxurious silk and sheer fabric reinforce the exotic origins, though it does sometimes feel like it has been decorated from a child's dressing-up box. Glazed earthenware pottery with geometrical designs is used as crockery and quirky wine glasses add to the charm.
Those bitten by the north African bug and tired of minimalist interiors can visit the restaurant's Kasbah to buy heavily decorated lamps, pottery and elaborate hookahs. The hookah obviously isn't suitable for smoking out in the street but might look good in a modern apartment.
The bill came to €113.20 between two, which we felt was good value for some exciting food and good service. El Bahia delivers luxurious but traditional food and at €56.60 each, I couldn't even haggle over the price.