Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dar Essalam: A Great Tourist Trap!

Dar Essalam Dar Essalam Dining Room Dar Essalam Dar Essalam Menu Dar Essalam Olives Moroccan Salads Tagine of Beef Tangia of Lamb Moroccan Dancer Orange Dessert
In 1956 my favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, made a movie with Doris Day. It was called The Man Who Knew Too Little. And part of it took place in a restaurant in Marrakech called Dar Essalam. Now, that isn't enough to entice most of you to visit this very hard to find restaurant. That previous sentence doesn't actually need to be there because most places are impossible to navigate to as I believe the locals rip the road signs off the road so that they can "help" you find your way and then stick out a hand wanting you to pay them for that service. Anyway, that's another topic, one that heats up my body temperature and forces beads of sweat to form on my brow. I must of spent $30 "tipping" people whom I never asked for directions just so they'd leave me and my wife alone.

Eventually, we arrived at our chosen restaurant for the evening. A brisk hand interjected between me and what I guessed was some kind of employee sitting on a chair smoking. The young man said, "give me whatever you like." So, I gave him the little change I had in my pocket. It was about $3. "This is nothing!" He shouted, his hand outstretched once more. "What do you mean, I could of taken a taxi from where we were (just off the Jemaa el-Fnaa) for that much!" I said, clearly unhappy about yet another person telling me I didn't give them enough money when I didn't exactly agree to be guided anywhere. "Taxis don't come down here." My new friend told me. "It's not enough!" And then I told a slight fib, "Well, that's all I have." "Ok, ok, fine." And with that, he left me alone.

Calming down we were brought to our table in one of the ultra plush dining rooms. As usual, my wife and I were the only people in the room. Being American, I still cannot help arriving to dinner early. But it kind of works out because I can take photos without German men in Birkenstocks and knee high socks in them, or the other American's who, just because they are in North Africa decide to go to Macy's and buy outfits that are all brown, usually with cutaway trousers and paper light scarfs that serve almost no purpose, but make them look like they've just gone walk-about in the Sahara.

Because we were the only diners, the waiter, who was one of the best waiters we have ever had, very funny, kept checking on us. Every minute or so he would come out and say, "Are you ready to order?" "No, just another few minutes." And with a giant smile he'd say, "Yes, ok. No rush. Please. Whenever you are ready I am ready." And then a minute later he'd come back and say, "Ok, what can I get you please?" This went on for about 45 minutes until I forced my wife into deciding on what to get.

Not long after we ordered my wife's Moroccan salads came out. A selection of six different vegetables. Not really a salad as the menu stated, but more like a taste of what can be created when you make something the day before and then slightly reheat it and put it on a small plate. Most of them were very tasty; the lentils and aubergine were my favorites. My selection of Briouates, which are similar to Somosas, a filling, in this case Cheese, or mixed Veg, got my taste buds partially exited, but didn't really do much to forward Dar Essalam's cause.

During our meal  a woman got on stage with a platter full of lit candles and a tea pot. She danced and twirled and spun. It was pretty spectacular, and I never go in for those sorts of things. When the main course arrived our waiter placed mine down and said, "Fish right?" I said, "Um, no I ordered the lamb Tagina." "No fish?" "No, I answered, trying to keep calm." And with that he lifted up the lid on the Tagine to reveal an empty container and then started laughing furiously! A joke I thought he made up and proudly displayed to only his close personal favorites in the restaurant. Until I saw every single other waiter doing the exact same thing! Still, it was funny and added to the entertainment for the night. He did the same thing to my wife and once again gave a gut busting laugh. Gotta give him credit! My Lamb Tagina, which is cooked in a large earthenware pot and then served into the bottom of a tagine, was very nice. Not excellent. Not even quite good. It was decent combinations of the flavors, well presented to me, cooked well. My wife's Beef Tagine was the same. A very nice dish, with meat that was tender and flavorful. But it wasn't excellent. But we really didn't come to Dar Essalam for excellent food. We went there to be a part of history. To be in one of the oldest restaurants in Marrakech, dining where one of the great actors dined while making a movie directed by one of the best directors of all time. All along we were treated to live music, dancing girls, dancing men and throngs of tourists in, "My dad visited Marrakech and all I got was this crummy shirt"... shirt.

Dessert I'm not even going to cover, because as you can see from my photo, I had Oranges with Cinnamon. Let's just leave it there.

It's a great place to visit. Just don't expect to be taken to gastronomic Nirvana. Go. Enjoy a nice meal. Enjoy the entertainment and the 20"x30" photo of Jimmy Stewart eating in the restaurant while filming the movie. And then go to Le Foundouk (will be blogging that soon) the next day for an exceptional Moroccan meal.

If you want to see my actual professional photography please click here.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lasan Restaurant: Indian, But Not Like You Know It!

Lasan Restaurant Lasan Menu Palette Cleanser Assiette of Chicken Tandoori King Prawns Pakoras Crab Nan Bread and Sides Monkfish Duck Beef Lamb Dessert
Every so often I visit a restaurant that totally blows my mind. Lasan in Birmingham is such a restaurant.

Having been obsessed with The Great British Menu last year during the Olympics in London it has been my goal to visit the restaurants of certain chefs from that show, which I particularly like. Daniel Clifford's restaurant is next week and Lasan was my most recent. Aktar Islam is a very talented young chef. Perhaps a little too talented. What I mean by this is that his cooking is perhaps a little confusing and stylized for some people and perhaps doesn't fit into any category. Lasan is like a brilliant high end French bistro, but with Indian flavors. So those looking for classical Indian dishes will be disappointed. You won't find a Chicken Madras or Vindaloo anywhere on this menu. And dishes are not served up in piles of saucy, lumpiness like every other Indian restaurant I've ever been to. It is delicately and meticulously placed on the plate.

When I booked Lasan I expected to see classic Indian dishes, but done much better than my local takeaway, if that's possible; I go to a very good one. What I got was so much better. To be fair, Aktar has a big advantage over most chefs and restaurants serving other types of fare. Indian spices, are in my opinion the best tastes on Earth. Garam Masala, Star Anise, Turmeric, Cardamon and Cloves are not only some of the most flavorful items on this planet, but also some of the healthiest. Indian is just damn fine food. And Lasan eeks out every flavor from every grain of every spice. Nothing is overlooked.

A couple of my favorites were: Konkan Kekada; Soft Shell Crab Dipped in a Crispy Ashwain and Kashmiri Chili Batter with Devonshire Crab, Green Pea and Potato Cake accompanied by Cucumber Raitha and Sour Raw Mango Chutney. This dish was inspired by the winning fish course on The Great British Menu. And it lives up to the hype! It is everything a beautiful plate of food should be. The Lamb Lababdar was equally sensational. A beautiful Wiltshire Downs Free Range Lamb Marinated Cutlet, 10 hour Confit Shoulder, Braised Shin Pattie and Tempered Lentils with Smoked Braising Juis Spiced with Nutmeg and Cinnamon. A winning dish on the semifinals of Gordon Ramsay's The F Word. Every bite I took of both of these dishes and in fact all of the dishes at Lasan was a sensory exploration in every way. The Indian I've had up until now has been basically one pot wonders with Indian spices. What Aktar has done is make Indian elegant and refined. I adored it.

If a trip to Birmingham is on the books and you like Indian as much as I do, please do yourself a favor and visit Lasan. Pricey? Yes! Worth it? Definitely! However, I can see why some might not like it. As I stated in the beginning, it is a very confusing restaurant and might be a little ahead of it's time. Still, it needs to be experienced at least once. You can make your own mind up.

To view my professional photography click here.

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