An array of starters appears in reasonably short order, and all look delicious in a rustic, home-style kind of a way. Tender creamy chickpeas swim in a light and perfectly seasoned lamb broth while carrots with cumin are just as the menu claims: fat, juicy batons of buttered carrots dusted with aromatic cumin. So far, satisfyingly mellow. Zaalouk, a gorgeous dip of roasted eggplant spiced with paprika and cumin, is accompanied by slivers of delectable preserved lemon, adding a little zing to the proceedings. The only complaint anyone has about this dish is that there is not quite enough, although I suspect that is testament to its deliciousness and our gluttony, rather than any hint of meanness on the part of the chef. A salad of fresh tomato is a little disappointing — it’s fine but just doesn’t really shine in such illustrious company. Nonetheless, we manage to eat every last morsel and polish each plate with the fresh, warm bread that accompanies this course.
On to the main event. It is impossible to go past the cous cous Royale (I love dishes with “Royale” in the name, it must be a Pulp Fiction-Samuel L Jackson hangover), so we don’t even bother trying. A gentle mound of golden grains of cous cous supports an array of braised vegetables, grilled Merguez sausage, tender, succulent braised lamb, and a chicken wing whose flesh slips meltingly from the bone. Two bowls of broth accompany this dish to moisten the cous cous: one spicy, one less so. Both are excellent, adding a depth of flavour and marrying the disparate parts of the dish together into a mouth-watering melange. The lamb tagine is equally satisfying. The lamb has been gently braised until it falls from the bone in surrender. The braising liquor is rich in flavour and spiked with dates yet avoids the overly thick, sweet stickiness to which so many versions of this dish fall prey. It leaves us feeling satiated but not stuffed, which is a good thing given that we haven’t even started on the chicken leg with preserved lemons. Again, the chicken is stunningly tender — the chef sure knows how to slow cook — and the preserved lemons are a fragrant, tart, pick-me-up for the palate. Every dish is a winner.
A few sweet bites round out the meal — slices of fresh orange are spiked with cinnamon and rose water make a refreshing counterpoint to the mellowness of the preceding dishes. Sello, a petite pyramid of crushed nuts spiked with sesame and bound with butter, provides texture and nuttiness as juxtaposition to the citrus juiciness of the oranges. Gazelle horns — crescents of crisp pastry stuffed with crushed nuts and spices and bathed in a slightly lemony syrup — are wonderfully sweet and sticky in the way that Arab-influenced North African desserts so often are.
A wonderful meal from start to finish, and well worth the extra ten-minute drive. The restaurant seats just 15 lucky diners, so don’t forget to book.
Zaalouk - VND70,000
Tomato Salad - VND80,000
Chickpea Marrakech - VND70,000
Carrots with cumin - VND70,000
Lamb tagine - VND190,000
Full leg chicken - VND170,000
Cous cous Royale - VND250,000
Food, decor and service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15
13 – 15 = extraordinary to perfection
10 – 12.5 = very good to excellent
8 – 9.5 = good to very good
5 – 7.5 = fair to good
0 – 4.5 = poor to fair
Food: 12 Atmosphere : 12 Service: 11
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals