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Le Belvedere’s Tajines

Published: Wednesday, June 02, 2010    



Maryam El Yaakoubi, Executive Sous Chef at The Mercure Grand Jebel Hafeet, prepared a few special dishes for the Friday evening buffet at Le Belvedere, and she let me have an advanced tasting. Mariyam is Moroccan, so she was eager for me to sample the traditional cuisine of her homeland.

Having been to Morocco, and eaten my way through much of the national menu, I recognized the dishes immediately. Tajines were the focus of our meal. Chef Maryam prepared lamb, chicken and couscous tajines in addition to a selection of Moroccan salads. Tajine refers to both a North African stew that's slow-cooked for hours and the clay, cone-shaped pot in which it's cooked (similar to tandoori dishes, which are slowcooked in a clay tandoor).

I began with the giant platter of assorted salads. There were several variations on the green salad, including something quite similar to a typical Mediterranean salad, with including something quite similar to a typical Mediterranean salad, with cucumber, capsicum, oil, vinegar, onion, tomato and lettuce. One of the salads featured tuna, another corn, another mushrooms. By far the most original and tasty, however, was the zaalouk. Grilled aubergine is the centerpiece of zaalouk, but the various ingredients were so well-orchestrated that one flavor didn't predominate over the others. Tomato, garlic, oil and aubergine in perfect harmony, with dashes of cumin, paprika and parsley. It can be eaten on its own or, better yet, used as a dip for bread.

The first tajine I tried was the Chicken with Lemon Confit. The chicken was lean, flavorful and supple. Cooked with handfuls of large green olives, the meat was coated with a thin blanket of oil, providing a pleasant texture and consistency. The dish was peppered with small lemon wedges, which I ate whole. They were tart, as you'd expect, but with a vaguely sweet finish that brought an unexpected depth to the flavor.

I love couscous, but it can be as dry as the desert from which it originates, like eating a bowl of sand. Chef Maryam's Couscous 7 Vegetables, however, was moist and delicate. The dish consisted of chick pea, carrot, marrow, onion, capsicum, squash, artichoke and presumably a vegetable or two I couldn't identify. This was the most savory of the tajines, though the saltiness was correctly balanced against the sweet and acidic elements.

I finished with the lamb tajine. It was prepared with prunes and slivered almonds. The most basic and critical rule of cooking is to work with food that's fresh and of high quality. This is so much more important than using nineteen obscure ingredients and cutting-edge culinary techniques. Lamb, prune and almond: simple but perfect. There was nothing extraneous here; every ingredient was necessary, each was cooked well, and they all complemented one another. The lamb was of the highest quality. It had enough fat to stay moist, tender and tasty, but not so much that it made you feel ill. The texture was pristine and, like a good beef bourguignon, the meat broke apart at the slightest touch of a fork. The lamb was succulent and didn't have the gamey subtext that can turn people away. Despite its impeccable preparation, it was the candied prunes that really held the dish together. They were sweet yet also savory and smoky, with a robust and complex body that blended quite well with the more subtle taste of almond. This stunning lamb tajine was a great way to finish our meal.
 
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