on April 10, 2011
When we first arrived in Marrakech my husband and I were staying for two nights in one riad whilst my sister, Aileen, and her girlfriend, Joyce, were staying at another nearby. On the night that we arrived we'd all chosen to eat at our riads but on the next day we wanted to eat together. We'd not seen any restaurants in the area where we were staying and the weather was a bit grey and drizzly so we didn't want to go all the way back into the town centre just to find food. My husband accompanied the others back to their riad so he'd know more or less where it was, and whilst there he found a pile of restaurant cards in the lobby of the riad. Dar Zellij caught his eye and when he asked the owner if it was nearby, he was told that it was so he called and booked a table for the four of us for 8 pm.At about quarter to eight we set off to find the restaurant. It's located in a 17th century riad in the Sidi Ben Slimane district of the old town. Luckily my husband has a phenomenal sense of direction and I had no idea how he knew where he was going. I think that one of the reasons the restaurant likes people to book in advance is that they can send out a search party if anyone goes missing – and believe me, it's easy to get lost.We stepped through a low wooden door into the entrance area and were then led through to the dining area. Perhaps we should have guessed almost immediately that we'd bitten off more than we could chew financially. All of the tables were covered in thick white table clothes which had been scattered with rose petals. All of the waiters were tall handsome chaps in snowy white djellabas with neat little bright red fez hats. Local musicians were torturing cats in the corner – or they may have been tuning up. We took our seats at a table laid for four people. I took a wander around with my camera, noting the beautiful painted wooden ceilings, the orange trees hung with fruit and the small rose petal filled pool in the centre of the courtyard. It was raining outside and we were glad that the courtyard was covered with a substantial waterproof sheet. Seeing all of this took some effort because the lighting was so low that we joked about getting out our head torches to read the menus when they eventually arrived.The waiter asked what we'd like to drink – wine, a cocktail, some champagne perhaps? Alarm bells rang and we timidly asked for four beers. Would we like to see the wine list he enquired – no, we'd stick with the beer thank you very much. The tension was palpable and when the menu arrived I thought Joyce was going to have a heart attack. There's no way to get round the fact that Dar Zellig is expensive. That I can accept. What I don't like is that it's expensive and the menu is very restricted. You have a choice – but only between different set meals. You can't just order a main course, or ask for two starters, or opt for a starter and pudding because the only option is how much your set menu costs and which of the limited options within it you will choose. The cheapest set menu is 350 dirhams (a little under £30) and for that you get choices which would set you back less than 100 in any standard mid-range local restaurant. The menus increase in price as the number of courses increase with some at over 600.We chose – not surprisingly – the least expensive menu but already felt uncomfortable that it wasn't offering us anything that we couldn't have got elsewhere for a much lower price. Joyce baulked at the amount of food and told the waiter that she "eats like a bird" and couldn't manage so much food. "Don't worry madame" he told her "this is a very small meal". OK, so now we knew it was not only expensive but we might need to find a snack on the way home. With a bit of eyelash batting she got the waiter to suggest that she and my sister 'share' a menu but we weren't too sure what that really meant. With regards to Joyce's birdlike tendencies, I can tell you she's more like a vulture than a sparrow.Morocco has some of the best bread in the world and I'd been in ecstasy with the warm crisp bread in our riad at dinner the night before and at breakfast earlier that day. So when the waiter appeared with small, rather hard and very thin little breads and served us one each, I was a bit miffed. The normal way is to stick a basket filled to bursting with slabs of bread and to keep filling it up – not to offer your guests a titchy little hard puck of bread. We received a few olives, some warm peanuts and some pickled odds and ends to nibble on but it did seem rather a mean offering.There was no choice of starter – you got, regardless of which menu you choose, a 'mosaic' of Moroccan salads. It also seems that whether there is one person or four people at your table, you get the same number of small dishes to try. Joyce was getting irritated that a single lady at the table next to us received just the same amount of food as we did. It was nice to have so many to try but each was little more than a small spoonful per person. I don't recall the details of every dish – and the light was so poor that I wasn't always sure what they were – but they included some lovely giant beans, a tomato salad, a gorgeous aubergine dip (always my favourite), and a couple that contained a lot of chopped mint.Beer in Dar Zellij will set you back 60 Dirham for a small bottle (that's about £5) and if you're a Brit then you'll want to prevent the waiter from pouring it unless you've developed strange foreign yearnings for a lot of froth.Main course choices were very limited – tajine with lamb, tajine with chicken or vegetable couscous. Somewhat annoyingly the vegetable couscous is included as an extra side-dish on the more expensive menus but was the only thing I could order. Disappointingly, I'd already had vegetable couscous for my lunch earlier in the day so I wasn't very excited by having it twice. The couscous came with an oily and barely spiced sauce which did nothing to lift it about the entirely ordinary. The dish of couscous was enormous and I barely scratched the surface of the amount offered whilst the others shared a dish of lamb tajine that was smaller than my mountain of couscous so I was able to persuade them to share. I'll have to take their word for it but they all claimed that the lamb was really good and that this was the best tajine of the holiday but sadly there was only very ordinary couscous for me.Dessert again was a choice of take it or leave it and was a pastilla of strawberry and custard. Pastilla is a dish with layers of crisp pastry which can be sweet or savoury. In this case it was pastry with a rather too sweet custard and sliced strawberry on top. The waiter bought just three and then when Joyce returned from the bathroom Aileen asked for an extra one. We didn't realise at this time that they were only serving us three people's worth of food and that was why she didn't have a dessert.Mint tea was served with a plate of local biscuits which we didn't finish. I find they're always a bit stale and often contain coconut which I've never really thought works in biscuits. Whilst we were sipping our teas, Tony crept off to pay the bill since he was feeling bad for bringing the girls somewhere so pricey. When I checked it later I was really impressed that they'd accepted Joyce's 'bird-like' please and only charged for three set meals plus an extra pudding but even so the bill came to 1620 dirhams which when a tip was added brought the bill to nearly £150.The setting was beautiful, the ambiance (screeching musicians excluded) was pleasant but the food just wasn't anything out of the ordinary. You can point out that £150 for four people isn't REALLY expensive but I'd have to disagree that for what we ate and the indifferent quality of the starters and my couscous in particular, I'd really have expected a lot better for a lot less.
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