click to enlarge 1000-bartlettimage-moroccan-breeze-5648.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

At Orlando's Moroccan Breeze, guests polish off hearty North African staples with gusto 

Ask the average Moroccan about where to find the best Moroccan food and they'll say "my mom's house" or "my aunt's house" or "at my house." I posed the question to a not-so-average Morroccan – Rabii Saber, the James Beard-nominated pastry chef at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando – and, sure as a sirocco, he said "my house." Even Moroccans in Morocco aren't a restaurant-going sort.

When locals in, say, Marrakech, do venture out to eat, it's typically at street food stalls, so we felt somewhat authentic walking up to Moroccan Breeze, a stall buried deep inside the gleaming Apna Bazaar on South OBT. The display of ghriba, or Moroccan cookies, had us visualizing dessert right off the bat, but there were scents, serious scents, that amplified the echo of our grumbling guts. Tagine-stewed lamb, baked b'steyas, grilled kofta – the olfactory mishmash overwhelmed, and the ensuing indulgence was heavy. Hearty harira ($3.99) soup with steaming khobz bread was just the beginning. The soup managed to deaden the gastric reverberations some, thanks to its thick, tomatoey blend of chickpeas, lentils and rice. Not receiving it with lemon wedges was my only quibble. That bread was used to scoop up glorious shreds of zaalouk ($4.49) – roasted eggplant simmered with tomatoes, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic and other spices – along with garlicky steamed-then-stir-fried seasoned carrots. For the meatless set, this soup/bread/veg combo will leave you glutted, and all for less than $9, a fact owner Habiba Bimekliouen took great pride in.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

The seasoned chef with 30-plus years of experience (seven of those at Epcot's Restaurant Marrakesh) is well-versed in the ways of customer service and customer satisfaction, as is her husband Ali. Conversation with the gracious pair flowed as freely as the Moroccan mint tea through the course of our meal, during which complimentary samples were offered, as were suggestions on what to order. I could see them watch our exultant faces after every bite of flaky beef briwat ($4.99), and it seemed to give them as much pleasure as it did us. Spiced ground beef stuffed inside a phyllo-like roll of dough dusted with a powdered sugar ... what's not to like?

Then came the lamb tagine ($12.99), an intensely flavored stew slow-cooked in the clay vessel synonymous with Moroccan gastronomy. It was bloody gorgeous, with both the bone-in cut and the lamb shank yielding on contact. Apart from pitted olives, there weren't any of the apricots or prunes or almonds with which the dish is typically dressed. We forgave the omission but, Habiba says, if you make the request before ordering, she'll gladly accommodate.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Ascending to the throne of the offerings here is the "Royal Couscous" ($15.99), one of those dishes that has you whipping out your phone before it arrives at the table. Lamb and chicken sits atop a base of fluffy couscous with snappy merguez sausage, zucchini spears, carrots and potatoes laid to resemble arches of a crown. This couscous rules.

Naturally, we had every intention of ordering an array of those Moroccan cookies to enjoy with our mint tea, but Habiba couldn't help but offer us samples of her shortbread and semolina wonders baked with everything from cacao and coconut to almonds and pistachios. Many cookies were eaten, and a lot of mint tea was consumed. Stuffed didn't begin to describe how we felt. Those once-grumbling guts? Well, they no longer grumbled and it'd be a while before they did again. Habiba and Ali looked at us to see if we were capable of more, but I just couldn't. "Let's do like a Moroccan breeze," I said to my dining comrade. After a couple of glazed-over blinks, he shot a knowing look back. "Yeah, let's blow."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

This story appeared in the Oct. 30, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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