Moroccan in Orlando

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    A drive along the eyesore that is Highway 192 in Kissimmee reveals scores of potential hidden gems — mom-and-pop joints tucked way in strip-mall nooks serving up everything from Cuban to Jamaican to Filipino cuisine. But there are hidden gems, and then there are hidden gems and Chez Achraf, a Moroccan “restaurant” situated in the Main Gate Flea Market food court, certainly falls into the latter category.

    The humble eatery is a little hard to find, but the trick is spotting the giant orange-shaped fruit stand (it’s between I-Drive South and Vineland Road), then making your way to Building “D,” where you’ll walk past stores hawking exotic birds, Chinese objets d’art, fake handbags, shoes and souvenirs before being greeted by the unmistakable aroma of grilled meats wafting from behind a counter.

    The fact that this place was recommended to me by three different people, all Moroccan, all raving about Achraf Taby’s Berber-influenced staples, bolstered my determination to find it, and I’m glad I did. A sandwich board lists daily specials like lamb shank and tangy chicken tagine though kebabophiles can get their share from herbaceous ground beef, chicken, lamb and merguez sausage, available for less than $8. Vegged-out harira soup is as hearty as it is comforting, and the mint tea is spot-on. For a truly immersive experience, head out to the fountain-side patio and join the merry band of Moroccans and Tunisians for a few drags on the hookah.

    When it comes to Moroccan restaurant ventures in this city, Achraf Taby has had his meaty fingers in the mix of quite a few of them. After stints in the kitchen at the now-defunct Casablanca Grill and Lounge and the eponymous Chez Achraf (it's now called Atlas Express, but still serves Moroccan staples), Taby has taken the helm of the kitchen at Kabbab House, a visually alluring if somewhat clichéd grill/lounge in the MetroWest Plaza. And while history hasn't been kind to couscouseries in Orlando, owner Simo Soaf is determined to make it work, and most of what I witnessed suggests Kabbab House has the potential to be a mainstay.

    With less than a handful of Moroccan restaurants in town (Epcot included), Berber cuisine has hardly had the opportunity to evolve ' so, not surprisingly, the menu here cleaves to the familiar. There's nothing wrong with that. You won't find modern riffs on traditional Moorish meals, but if you're up for kebabs, tagines, couscous and assorted Mediterranean bites, look no further.

    Moroccan cuisine comprises a heady array of dishes tinged with influences from Persia, India, Spain and Levantine nations, and for a representative sampling, the five-course Royal Feast ($23.95) poses quite a value. Depending on your mood, you can start your meal off with sweet-and-meaty chicken pastilla or a Mediterranean platter of hummus, tabouli and baba ghanoush. The pastilla was served piping hot and was a tad unctuous, but the overall textures and flavors of this flaky phyllo pie stuffed with chicken, eggs and almonds and dusted with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon exemplified the exotic nature of Moroccan fare. The platter was entirely satisfying, particularly the tart tabouli. The next course featured hearty harira, my go-to comfort soup of choice, but one sadly lacking in beef. Soaf admitted it's a ploy to appeal to vegetarians but, thankfully, the essence of the spice-laden, tomato-based broth wasn't lost. Greek salad was well-portioned with enough feta crumbles to keep cheeseheads in check.

    For the main course, diners can opt for a mixed grill of kebabs, lamb tagine or chicken tagine. The diminutive and anemic merguez sausage seemed like an afterthought on an otherwise impressive platter, dominated by succulent chicken and tender beef kebabs lanced on a blade. The beef, while soft, was overcooked; nicely seasoned kofta (ground beef) kebabs were grilled and seasoned to perfection; and the cushion of saffron rice deserved equal billing with the meat. Saffron and preserved lemon charged the sauce in the chicken tagine, with plenty of green olives offering a true taste of Tangier, even though the jus was a bit oily. Fluffy semolina highlighted a side of lamb couscous ($6.95), but the shank of the fluffy critter wasn't as fall-off-the-bone tender as I expected, and overcooked baby carrots added to the inconsistency. Honeyed baklava, the fifth and final course, proved too formidable for the IKEA silverware, but sweet mint tea made an ideal after-dinner refresher.

    If you plan on dining here on Friday or Saturday night, be sure to call ahead; the place gets packed with patrons flocking to catch live music and belly-dancing. Service is friendly, but harried and uncoordinated. Our server worked feverishly while others paced the room like zombies. When utensils aren't delivered, glasses are left unfilled and checks fail to materialize, other servers need to pick up the slack. Still, Kabbab House holds a lot of promise, and with a little work, lovers of Moroccan fare may avoid having to hear the heave of the Moor's last sigh.

    Spot-on Moroccan staples finally get their Millenia moment. Pasha's seductive atmo should play right into the Conroy Road crowd's tastes, not to mention the full bar, live music and belly dancing. But the food, from nourishing harira soup to lamb tagine to flaky pastilla, is the real attraction. Moroccan mint tea is a must, as is
    the creamy "Pasha delight."


    Teaser: Spot-on Moroccan staples finally get their Millenia moment. Pasha's seductive atmo should play right into the Conroy Road crowd's tastes, not to mention the full bar, live music and belly dancing. But the food, from nourishing harira soup to lamb tagine to flaky pastilla, is the real attraction. Moroccan mint tea is a must, as is the creamy 'Pasha delight.â?�

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