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Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro

3940 Fourth Avenue #110, Hillcrest

Maybe I've got Moroccan stardust in my eyes, but I think I've found the ideal neighborhood restaurant. The food at Kous Kous is delicious, authentic, and healthful -- and a bit too exotic to readily cook at home. The atmosphere is relaxing and sensual. The staff run the restaurant as though they're entertaining friends -- and entertaining is an apt description. You feel as if you're enjoying an intimate dinner party at the home of bright, witty friends who keep you laughing as they teach you about the cooking of their homeland.

A perceptive reader, L.M., clued me to Kous Kous's existence; otherwise I'd never have noticed the place. It's got an electric sign at street level, but the restaurant itself is down a short flight of stairs, next to a glittery "We buy Rolexes" pawnshop.

Most San Diegans, when they think of Middle Eastern food, envision generic Greek-style cuisine or think of our excellent local Persian restaurants. Moroccan cuisine -- from North Africa rather than Asia -- is different. Where Persian food is generally mild, herbal, and earthy, Moroccan flavors are intense but subtle, hinting of the stronger tastes of dried spices.

If Kous Kous offers an authentic menu, it also presents the cuisine differently from typical Moroccan restaurants (including Marrakech in La Jolla, our only other local representative). Moroccan cooking usually comes with a strong dose of touristic "Arabian Nights" atmosphere, with seating on floor cushions at low tables and obligatory belly-dance performances. At Kous Kous you find a spacious bistro-style room with a small lounge, Oriental-fabric cushions, sofas and rugs near the entrance, a wooden bar along one side, and a dimly lighted dining room, conventional tables and chairs set over a thick faux-Persian green floral carpet. The hanging lanterns cast lacy shadows like butterfly-wing patterns onto the ceiling, and world music plays softly in the background. Don't know about you, but I find it a relief that no skinny blonde dressed up like Scheherazade is gonna come shimmying around to interrupt the meal.

The menu structure is different, too. Instead of the standard stuff-your-face four-course prix fixe, you choose á la carte from a list of a dozen-odd favorite dishes of Marrakech, where the chef-owner hails from. Since my visit, the menu has expanded -- each week, Moumen includes a new dish. The latest is b'stilla, a filo-crusted chicken pot pie topped with cinnamon, almonds, and powdered sugar; most Moroccan prix fixe restaurants serve this delicacy between the soup and the entrée.

The passengers on this run of the Marrakech Express were the Lynnester, Samurai Jim, and a newcomer to the gang, 747 Stu. It was a quiet weeknight, so while we were deciding what to order, the chef-owner came by our table to explain the dishes and answer any questions. "My name is Moumen -- it's easy, it rhymes with Newman," he said. ("Noumen?" I wondered, drifting off to Plato, or maybe Pluto.) "Newman -- the guy on Seinfeld," said Lynne, as if mind-reading my drift. "Aaagh, no!" Moumen said. "Not him! Newman as in Paul!" He went on to give us a cheerful crash course in Moroccan food appreciation, describing every menu item.

A basket of warm pita triangles -- soft and fresh -- arrived at the table first, along with a relish plate of sweet chopped poached carrots and kalamata olives. We began with a vegetable appetizer plate called "Chutney Sampler." "They're not chutneys at all," said Moumen, "but a trio of mezze dips to spread on pita, if you like." One was a paste of roasted eggplant seasoned with cumin and lemon juice; it sent Lynne into a fit of passion and pleased the rest of us mightily. Another featured a spread of gently poached seasoned carrots, again of amazing sweetness, seasoned with ginger. The third was a pipérade of roasted, peeled bell peppers and sautéed onions, so refreshing that I promised myself that henceforth I would let no pipérade at home go unpeeled.

Sh'lad is a fresh tomato mixture served as a bruschetta on soft baguette. "The bread is a concession to American tastes," said Moumen, "so that it will seem more familiar." Overfamiliar, it turned out. "Crostini just don't do it for me anymore," said Lynne. "It's better on pita," said 747 Stu. We had a chance to test this hypothesis, because our third appetizer, Moroccan quesadillas, substituted pita for tortillas. We chose a filling of caramelized onions and mild melted cheese, which came with a ramekin of the sh'lad ingredients minced into a salsa for topping. The other fillings include samples of the chicken and the lamb entrées. Whichever you choose, these would be great noshes if you come in just for a bite.

Morocco's most memorable entrée is probably the humble lamb shank tagine (a Moroccan stew or braise, cooked in a clay vessel with a saucer-like bottom and a peaked "hat"). The lamb is braised for more than four hours, until perfectly tender, and served with almond slivers, prunes, and a lamb-broth sauce sweetened with a touch of honey. The meat gains an edge from a spice rub called Ras al Hanout. "Only in Marrakech do you find this spice," said Moumen. "It's in the grocery stores there, but in other cities you don't see it at all. My mother sends it, or my sister brings me a kilo whenever she comes to visit." Here, the shank is of moderate size, from a younger lamb. Remarkably, given how fatty shanks usually are, there was not a trace of grease in the enchanting sauce. Since Moumen makes all the tagines in the morning, the flavors have a chance to blend before they're gently reheated to serve on order.

Hit Number Two on the Kous Kous hit parade is Chicken Mu'hammer, a braised half-chicken with quartered green olives and slivers of preserved lemons. The cut lemons -- peel and flesh together -- are heavily brined in kosher salt, then stored in olive oil. The intense, complex flavor they develop can't be described but must be tasted. Like the lamb, the chicken is cooked gently and slowly (90 minutes in a low oven). Moumen told us how his mother taught him to make it: She used little liquid but periodically spooned the broth over the top of the chicken to keep it moist -- but never so wet that the liquid could steal flavor from the bird. Hence, Kous Kous's version has less sauce than other renditions of the dish that I've tasted, but what there is, is alluring.

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