Morocco is a land of mystery. It has been the setting of a multitude of films, perhaps the most famous of which is the unforgettably iconic Casablanca. Casablanca was story of adventure, lost love and heroism, set against the perfect backdrop, a mysterious and intriguing city on the North African coast, Casablanca, Morocco. The city remains a curiosity in the American imagination, as evidenced by the many film makers and song writers that have made it the subject of their artistry.
It’s no wonder. Colonized by the French at the turn of the 20th century, the two cultures mingled and cuisines blended to produce a unique result, a compelling marriage of African and French flavors and techniques. The first time I experienced Moroccan food was back in the seventies, in a restaurant whose name I have long forgotten. I remember only that we sat on pillows and ate with our hands, quite literally, immersed in a bit of Moroccan culture. My first little trip on the “Marrakesh Express.”
I haven’t really been afforded an opportunity to fully experience the flavors since then, but as our global community grows ever smaller, the cuisines of other lands seem to be more and more readily available to the consumer. Such opportunities are a gift, and we should take advantage of such gifts when they present themselves. So when I was recently invited to sample the menu at the newly renovated and rebranded Doukkala located in Oakland’s Temescal District, I decided to take my own advice and check it out.
The restaurant has chosen the terms “California Moroccan” to describe the cuisine provided within. With all the variations on descriptive terminology used to entice us, one can have some difficulty translating the terms into our expectations of the food offerings within. Doukkala is aptly named. It is a blending of the style of California and the flavors of Morocco.
Chef Eric Lanvert presented us a masterful Tasting Menu. The opening salvo was a delightful Chilled Gazpacho, ripe with the blush of summer tomatoes and Mediterranean spices. Richly seasoned, the soup carried the mysteries of the locale along the tastebuds, a thrilling little adventure in flavor that was just the right temperature to awaken the palate.
The next course, a special “off-menu” preparation from Chef Lanvert, was a beautiful little mountain of Albacore Tartare. The delicate combination of the buttery fish on the tongue as it blended with the subtle kick of spice made the dish irresistible to this seafood fanatic. No sooner had we devoured our Tartare than we were presented with a glorious Pacific Dayboat Scallop, nestled beautifully in a pillowy bed of Jerusalem Artichoke Velouté. The Velouté itself was a lovely consistency, akin to that of perfectly creamy grits, and a stellar companion to each delicate bite of the perfectly-seared morsel of seafood atop it. Sublime.
The next dish, a Grilled Spanish Mackerel, was a bit heartier than those that had preceded it. Mackerel is an oily fish, its flesh rich and tangy, rather like an overgrown sardine. It is the sort of fish that really holds up to the hearty tomato and olive-based preparations the chef had chosen to accompany this dish. The fish was crisped beautifully, and the blissful Moroccan Tapenade alongside it was tempered perfectly by the delicate sauce of mint and green peas drizzled along the plate, allowing a hint of the sauce with every bite. By the addition of the olives, the dish was pushed right up to edges of salty, but the oils and hint of mint pulled it right back to an execution of excellence that all but transported the diner to the streets of Marrakesh. With each bite, I could imagine myself shoulder to shoulder with other travelers, making my way along a crowded street in the heart of the bustling city, the smells of the street food wafting along in the air, as eager vendors shouted the superiority of their wares in a foreign tongue.
The Mendocino Quail Pastilla was the final offering of the savory courses, and it was an imaginative bridge to the sweet side of the meal, arriving at the table in the form of a puff pastry of filo dough filled to the brim with savory, succulent quail meat. The top of the pastry was sprinkled with a dusting of powdered sugar, lending a hint of sweet to an otherwise savory filling. The filo dough wrapped each tender bite of dark, spicy quail with a toothsome crunch, the filling of anjou pears, honey and spices, keeping the bird meat itself from any hint of gaminess. The dish bridged the road to sweet from savory from a uniquely new and appealing perspective. It was decadent, rich and incredibly satisfying.
The final course was a lovely tasting trio of dessert offerings: a succulent Panna Cotta, a delicate Spiced Chocolate Cake topped with crème fraîche and the classic Middle Eastern dessert, Baklava. The Panna Cotta was creamy and light; the chocolate cake rich and moist, and the Baklava was laden with the traditional honey and nuts, but not overly sweet, which I found refreshing. All three were delightful: the perfect end to a really splendid meal.
When I arrived at Doukkala, I was expecting a family-style meal of plentiful bowls, containing casually-ladled-out couscous and kefta. I was both surprised and impressed to taste the bounty of dishes that were actually presented to us there, each having both a delightfully artistic classic French appearance in the plating, while containing a variety of vibrant flavors and textures expertly representing the best of Moroccan cuisine. If you are a fan of adventure, or even if you are not, I believe a visit to Doukkala is in order. I found it, in a word, sublime. As always, check it out for yourself, break some bread, and make a memory of your own.