The cuisine of Morocco at L’Orient combines warm spices with a carefully designed space
In Arabic, khattat means calligrapher, the scribe whose perfectly formed lines transform text into art. A similar transformation is happening at L’Orient, where owner Mustapha Khattat presents the culture and cuisine of Morocco, turning seemingly simple food into understated delicacies.
The 2nd district’s Rotensterngasse is a nondescript street: a rather loud one-way link from here to there. Thus my surprise was great when the ground floor doors of the street’s grayest building (in fact where I used to live) suddenly opened one evening last May, radiating a warm and inviting light.
Khattat is from Fez, his wife, Marietta Wanner, from Vienna. Together they have long had a Moroccan interior design shop in the 6th, where they also offered occasional cooking workshops. The obvious next step was a restaurant.
Brass lamps flicker through tiny cut out arabesques of vines and leaves, making the light dance on walls in subtle shades of white. Benches lining the walls are covered with cushions in undulating blues and creams. At two larger tables, groups chat quietly in French and Arabic. The music is raï and other Moroccan pop styles, not too loud.
Tiles with rhythmic patterns cover the floor and flow into the open kitchen, where piles of hand-painted, silver rimmed plates and dark earthenware tagines contrast with stainless steel surfaces. My curiosity and appetite are roused.
The first bite was of zerlouk, roasted eggplant in tomatoes. It was a melt in your mouth moment of bliss. The next starter was carotte marinée, humble carrots brought to life with coriander, cumin and lemon. And then muhammara, a paste made of red peppers, walnuts and pomegranate syrup, sweet and salty at once.
What defines Moroccan food is its spices and herbs, an inspiring list that seems endless: mace, turmeric, ginger, cloves, cayenne, parsley, pepper, sesame and more. Khattat purchases his spices from a relative in Meknes, close to Fez, and has them freshly ground. He also makes his own ras el hanout spice mixture, literally meaning “the head of the shop” but better translated as “top-shelf,” a prized and exceptional blend.
Also typical is the tagine, a cooking vessel with a cone-shaped lid. It is a clever design, especially in a land where water is precious: The lid traps steam, sending the condensed water back into the pot. What joy the first whiff brings when it opens to couscous tfaya, the ubiquitous Maghreb wheat dish topped with beef and caramelized onions, together with tender yellow garbanzo beans and whole roasted almonds.
Characteristic of many dishes are two obvious ingredients with a hidden third that provides elegance. Briouats mallem are thin rolls of dough filled with pounded beef and chopped olives – with cinnamon. The lemonade contains syrup flavored with mint – and basil. Amlou is a breakfast spread of ground almonds, honey – and argan oil.
The menu is not long but it is seasonal, with some dishes changing weekly. And it lists no alcoholic beverages. “The food should remain at the forefront,” Khattat explains. “And Moroccan green teas, with fresh mint and rosebuds, saffron and sugar, are the traditional – and perfect – complement to our dishes.” But you may bring a bottle of wine: The corkage fee is €8.
In a back corner is a mashrabiya, a wooden latticework window, with a secret view into a backstreet of Fez. Yes, an illusion, but how fine it is to be transported there for a short time.
L’Orient – das Restaurant
2., Rotensterngasse 22
0676 302 1230 or 0676 302 1262