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Ridge’s La Maison Du Couscous offers Moroccan food that sings

for The Brooklyn Paper
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La Maison Du Couscous - French for "The House of Couscous" - in Bay Ridge, changes the usual all-show Moroccan restaurant equation.

No belly dancers, here. In fact, no show at all. The house is more of a walk-in closet with seven glass-topped tables.

The real razzle-dazzle comes from the cooking.

Opened one year ago by Abderrahim "Zachy" Ezzaki, this diminutive cafe, ably serving both Moroccan clientele and neighborhood locals, has garnered great word of mouth. While buzz can also lead to a "What’s all the fuss about?" experience, that wasn’t the case at La Maison Du Couscous. After a meal there, I wondered why there wasn’t a line out the door.

Moroccan cooking borrows from its explorers and conquerors: the French, Middle Easterners and Asians. The result is a cuisine that employs hot and sweet peppers, cinnamon, light, refreshing mint and deeply aromatic basil. Lusty, hot peppers and olives mix with tart, preserved lemons; and essences of orange blossom water and rosewater impart a floral note to drinks and dessert. To turn out satisfying Moroccan food, spices need to be employed judiciously so that each complements the other and one spice doesn’t hog the show.

There’s no better example of this alchemy than the velvety zaalouk. Soft and unctuous, the eggplant spread is deeply smoky, as if the eggplants were slowly roasted over a wood fire. The mixture tasted of cumin, and a bit of garlic, and last, the lingering flavor of paprika. It was delicious scooped up with a spongy disc of the warm, house-baked Moroccan semolina bread.

Cracked green olives liberally laced with red pepper began the meal. Their fiery heat and briny, acidic flavor contrasted beautifully with the zaalouk, and paired well with all the dishes I tried.

La Maison Du Couscous doesn’t have a liquor license. They offer tea, coffee, soda, and in addition to orange and apple juices, they serve the unusual avocado and almond juices.

Try the almond juice. It looks like a frothy glass of milk but has a light, clean almond flavor. A few drops of orange blossom water scented the drink with a delicate floral aroma, and the ground almonds left a pleasingly rough texture on the tongue. The juice worked like a balm on the palate. Sipped after popping an olive into the mouth, it instantly calmed the fire of the hot peppers.

Four little phyllo triangles called briwats were stuffed with coarsely chopped shrimp, scallops and calamari. A squeeze of lemon brought out the clean flavors of the seafood.

Skipping the couscous at La Maison Du Couscous is like passing on the flapjacks at the International House of Pancakes. Couscous is tiny grains of semolina pasta, steamed and served as a base for meat, fish and vegetable stews, like an alternative to rice. It’s the national dish of Morocco and the chefs at this House of Couscous do it proud. The lamb couscous is one huge shank served over a pile of fluffy couscous. The lamb was tender, and its sauce thick and sweet with onions and plump sweet raisins.

As superb as the restaurant’s signature dish is, their tajines are even better. A tajine is a deep earthenware dish with a tight-fitting conical lid. A stew of meat, fish and vegetables slow cooks in the tajine. Lift the top off and an aromatic cloud of steam settles over the table. Magic happened under the lid that transformed a chicken breast into something far better. The flesh of the bird became dense and succulent. Like a sponge, it absorbed the flavors of green olives and preserved lemon. When touched with a fork, the tangy, rich juice of the meat oozed onto chunks of creamy potatoes.

Then there’s the soft-spoken waitress with the teapot. Yes, it was frightening to have an arc of scalding liquid so near my face, but once poured, the tea was sweet and minty and as calming as a dose of Prozac.

A display case of honey-sweetened pastries sat in the corner of the restaurant. They’re usually too sweet for me, and I wanted something cold to end the meal. The creme caramel was refreshing, but also too sweet. Stick with the house-made biscotti - moist and almondy - and a cup or two of the lovely tea.

The only thing that La Maison Du Couscous lacks is high drama. That’s fine with me. If I want entertainment, I’ll go to Broadway. When I want good conversation and a great meal, I’m hightailing it to La Maison.

 

La Maison Du Couscous (484 77th St. at Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge) accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover. Entrees: $7.95-$11.95. For information, call (718) 921-2800.

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Reasonable discourse

Matt Carman says:
The meal started with a plate of hot, marinated green olives on the house. The appetizer of goat cheese and spinach in phyllo dough was a warm, crispy shell with cool, creamy insides and a touch of citrus. The chicken kebab was, according to a friend, "the most perfect chicken I've ever had." I have to agree with that. I had the couscous royale, which came with two of their homemade Merguez sausages (somewhat hot and very flavorful), a leg of lamb and a breast of chicken, both served on the bone but so tender they were falling right off. Both portions were satisfyingly large, and this is coming from two people who can put it away. We ended the meal with the baklava, which had a great natural sweetness and notes of lavender, a flavor I've never tasted in any other baklava I've had.

The service was attentive, with our waiter/owner making sure everything came out without too much or too little time in between courses. The dining area is small, but there was no lack of table space during our meal, which included some larger parties and families from the neighborhood. The semi-open kitchen has the place swimming in warm, delicious smells, building up the anticipation for the next course.

An intimate setting, large portions, accomodating service, and most of all amazing food made for a great experience at La Maison du Couscous. Recommended for anything from a first date to a last supper.
Jan. 2, 2008, 4:37 pm

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