Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Welcome to Morocco's. Really?

There used to be a cute Mexican restaurant with a nice little margarita bar at 86 N. Market Street in San Jose, but maybe two months ago it gave way to a new Moroccan restaurant called, creatively, "Morocco's". I suppose there will never be a question of what they serve there.

Last night I tried it for the first time. After a late night at the office, I was pleasantly surprised to see it still open -- apparently they serve until 11pm -- bonus! The place was completely dead inside. Literally we were the only guests. The host was quite cute about it, pointing out that we'd have their staff's undivided attention. This was a Tuesday night around 9:30pm, and it's a new restaurant in the tough upscale dining market of downtown San Jose, so what the heck.

It was "ladies night", so my guest was promptly presented with a complimentary and wholly unique cocktail of merlot, cabernet, vanilla vodka, cinnamon, cranberries (?), and perhaps something fizzy. Bizarre? You bet. Good? Surprisingly so! We were both surprised. My guest insisted it was terrible as she turned away from me hiding the drink from my grasp and sipping furiously at it -- a good sign indeed!

Unfortunately after that, the evening started to break down a bit. Upon questioning the waitress about the size of the tagine's (should we order one or two), we were informed that while the tagine's are usually served with basmati rice, couscous and bread, they were fresh out of rice and bread. OK then. How do you run out of bread in a Moroccan restaurant on a dead-quiet night? Strike 1. Well no bother, we ordered a lamb tagine with olives and potatoes, and a beef with apricots and prunes.

Meanwhile we had ordered a bottle of wine. They won't be serving Moroccan wine for another month, but they had a small selection of California and Argentine wines and the waitress recommended "her favorite on the menu", a Terrazas Malbec Reserva '05. On the menu it was listed as $15; quite cheap for a bottle of wine but hey, if it's a staff favorite, I'm all for good cheap wine. It was OK, really nothing great, but for $15, OK.

As a side-note, the waitress left the foil protruding over the bottle opening so the wine flowed over dirty foil, poured both of us a taster, and then re-corked the bottle after attempting to pour me a FULL glass of wine. Fortunately I was able to stop her from dumping 1/3 of the bottle into my oversized goblet of a glass, which I was already paying close attention to as I'd had to request a clean glass to replace the one with more spots than an aquaphobic adolescent boy that I originally had. Just a little request to all the burgeoning waitstaff of the world; if you're going to serve wine in a restaurant, please learn how to open and pour a bottle? Thanks.

So the food came, and it was actually quite delicious, even without the bread. But there was one, minor, problem. They ran out of prunes. And didn't tell me. The waitress presented my dish and apologized that they were "out of prunes, but they added more apricots to make up for it -- and apricots are better, anyway". Now hold on a second. If "apricots are better", then why are the prunes even in the dish in the first place. And if you're out of them, whey didn't you tell me when I ordered? Or when the chef went to make the dish? I can just hear the internal dialog…

Let's see, one order of beef with apricots and prunes, ah yes. Lovely. OK here's the beef, yes. And the apricots, delicious. Prunes… hm, no prunes. Shit. Well, we've already admitted that we're out of rice and bread. We'll look like complete muppets if we tell him we're out of dried plums as well. I know! More apricots, who will notice! Gosh I'm clever.

Now maybe that's a bit harsh, but come on! I've had moroccan dishes with prunes before, and I like it! Don't substitute a major ingredient by simply adding more of another! Grrrr… strike 2.

As another curious side-note, my tagine was served on a trendy square plate. Our complementary nibbles of camembert and goat cheese and mixed nuts was on a neat rectangular pate. My guests dinner came on a round plate. She suggested perhaps they ran out of corners.

So missing ingredients and side-dishes aside, the food was actually quite good. The beef was tender and delicious, and the lamb flavorful if a bit dry (although my guest insisted it was just fine). The couscous was average, but not sticky enough to eat by hand. Which brings us to the ambiance…

One of the thrills of Moroccan dining is the ambiance. The multi-colored hanging lamps of glass and metal, the rich colors on the walls, the music, the low light, the sitting on low cushions on the floor eating off a low table with your hands, all seating pushed around the edges of the restaurant to leave room for belly dancing in the middle. Theatrical? Yes. But this is part of what makes Moroccan dining so much fun. This restaurant, however, served all food with knives and forks, seated at traditional western tables and chairs. There is no space for dancing, and while they occasionally have live music, belly dancing is only available for private parties. The music selection was being mixed by a guy permanently on the phone and a Sony Vaio who actually unplugged the audio cable from one computer mid-song and jammed it into his laptop to play something else. The waitress said they were doing the restaurant in this way as "most people don't like to eat with their hands, and this is better". Right.

We were offered a complementary desert to make up for the missing ingredients (my date wanted to order it to see if we got a desert of mixed prunes), but we passed and asked for the bill.

Remember that $15 bottle of Malbec? Try $50. Apparently the menu that the waitress pointed out the wine on was a "per glass" price. $15 for a glass of this wine? Sorry but this isn't Santana Row. It's downtown San Jose. And it's dead. Half of what you pay at the 'row is for the ambience. Strike 3. Now to be fair I bevmo'd it when I got home, and it is a $17 retail bottle. So $50 on a menu is, while on the high-end of acceptable, acceptable. But only at a top-end restaurant. This should have been $35 on the menu, no more. And while it may have earned 89 points from Wine Spectator, I was less than impressed. Maybe give it a few years to mellow. The waitress did insist it was the best wine on the menu. Also the most expensive. Hmm. Anyway, with a $50 bottle, two dishes at $17 each, tax and tip, the total bill was just north of $100. A hundred bucks for an inappropriately recommended wine and three missing ingredient dinner does not a good first impression make.

On the way out, the host asked if we enjoyed the wine. He said it was "his favorite on the menu".

86 N. Market Street
San Jose, CA 95113
(408) 998-1509

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rating: 3 feet
verdict: I'm having a hard time rating this. Two isn't enough, but three seems generous. I might go again, if someone asks me. I do want to see San Jose grow culturally, and restaurants like this can help that happen. Lower the prices, train the staff, and stop running out of ingredients, and perhaps it'll still be here in a year. All missteps aside, the food was actually quite good.