Le Souk Harem

BY Nadia Ghattas TIMEDecember 1, 2009 PRINT

Kosta, the celebrated chef de cuisine. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)
Kosta, the celebrated chef de cuisine. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)

The name intrigued me: Le Souk Harem, a unique Moroccan eatery and bar and lounge that saw its recent New York opening. The relaxed atmosphere and cuisine are decidedly Moroccan. A recent memorable visit charmed my dining companions and me with a wonderful selection of not only food and drink but also music and song.

Entering the establishment gives a false illusion of having entered a small place with an open kitchen at one side. But not so! The upstairs dining area, surrounded by decorative iron rails, is spacious. The atmosphere—a vague feeling of entering a time tunnel—was one we know from history books and fairy tales during the days of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire: dim lights in colorful, traditional Moroccan mosaic lanterns, in colors of green, red, and orange, augmented by lots of candles all-around. A bar is close to the staircase, as is an arched entry to a dimly lit dining tent. Plush banquettes and low leather seats are placed around low dining tables on the other side of the room, a charming ambience.

But wait, there’s more! At the other end of the room is the diwan setting, a quite dimly lit, perhaps semiprivate area, reminiscent of a sultan’s quarters: good for small groups to gather around the table, to sink into the diwans and the soft couches and chairs for an intimate and leisurely dining experience.

Middle East dining customs are unhurried, starting with the mezza (appetizers), comprised of many mini morsels, as many as 40 or so. The main courses comprise exotic fare such as the outstanding, unique, and traditional seafood pastille, and succulent lamb ribs and tagines. All dishes are made with fresh, high-grade ingredients and spices that are bold, yet gentle and aromatic, to excite the palate.

A Middle Eastern dining experience in the native country might last four to five hours. You do not have to go to that extent, but you have the rare opportunity to experience this right in New York’s West Village’s La Guardia Place, also the spot for the fabulous flavors of Moroccan cuisine with a Lebanese and French twist. Even hooka fans might enjoy a pipe at the outdoor café.

Two Russian-Jewish brothers, Marcus and Sam Jacob, who migrated to Israel and lived there for nine years, own and operate Le Souk Harem. Morocco used to host a large Jewish community. I met Kosta, chef du cuisine, who told me that while living in Israel he worked in Arabic-Moroccan restaurants. It was there he decided to be a chef and went to cooking school. Following graduation, he worked at the Hyatt Hotel by the Dead Sea. Then came a move to New York in 2001 where he worked as a line cook at Alain Ducass’s Mix (now closed), then at Jean George’s V Steak, working the grill, and at Country as sous chef.

Le Souk Harem was launched in New York in September 2009, with celebrated chef Doug Psaltis presiding over the kitchen, to entice discerning New Yorkers with exquisite fare. 

Everything is meticulously made, including the menu card, constructed of fine silk-like paper, and elegantly presented. The menu, a kaleidoscope of wonderful, innovative mouth-watering dishes, does not disappoint. Starters, include soups and other appetizers, followed by main dishes and specialties as well as Le Royal, a combo for only $24. The menu also offers a reasonably priced, six-course, prix fixe dinner, with a selection from either from the Traditions ($36), Nouveau ($46), or Menu du Chef ($46). Each choice is loaded with wonderful surprises.

I must marvel how well Moroccans know how to mix spices. Each food combination harmoniously combined spices to generate the best flavors and aromas to perfectly blend with the meat, poultry, and fish. They neither overpower, but astound with distinct flavors; some are standouts. One of them, known as Ras El hanout, is a blend of 10 or 100 spices; the amount and mixture used depending on the dish and the cook.

Cocktail offerings include nonalcoholic selections, too. I had the Guava Mojito. My friend had the Mango Mojito. Both were refreshing and excellent to smooth your way into the most amazing Harira soup ($6) I have ever had: a delight consisting of chickpeas, lentils, and pasta, topped with heavy cream. A perfect consistency, with each ingredient and flavor standing out. I would have been happy to have it as a main course.

We ordered the Pasteque et Fromage ($7) appetizer: watermelon, demiati cheese, olives, and fresh chilies. Having lived around the Mediterranean, I grew up with this food. Demiati cheese is similar to the sheep-cheese feta, but less salty and made with goat’s milk, a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. The sweetness and crunchiness of the watermelon against the smooth and salty cheese was great. My friend liked it a lot. But for me, it tasted a bit out of balance—the cheese overpowered the watermelon. The unexpected chilies were a surprising addition, providing naughty heat toward the end of the bite.

Pastilla du Pechuer - fantastic and amazing flavors with shellfish. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)
Pastilla du Pechuer - fantastic and amazing flavors with shellfish. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)
I expectantly salivated for the authentic icon that gave Moroccan cuisine its distinction: Pastilla du Pechuer ($19), thin layers of phyllo dough with shellfish, vermicelli, and charmoula sauce. The latter is made with olive oil, cream, and red peppers, among other secret ingredients. The chef here makes his own blend of spices with a focus on cilantro, turmeric, and cumin, each distinctly standing out—my favorite!

The scallops here are to die for: the preparation is smooth and sweet and perfectly blended with the spices.

Another dish that stood out and my friend claimed it to be his favorite—I can appreciate why—is the Makfoul ($17), slow braised beef ribs, caramelized onions, and tomatoes that we could not help but devour. This was accompanied by a tagine of couscous, topped with vegetables. This comforting sweet and tart combination of flavors and textures with the very tender beef made our palates dance with joy. If you are feeling decadent, try the finger licking lamb ribs, marinated in dry spices for 36 hours, then slowly cooked for at least five hours and served with house-made fennel tomato marmalade.

Berber-influenced couscous in a tagine. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)
Berber-influenced couscous in a tagine. (Nadia Ghattas/The Epoch Times)
The outstanding service made our dining experience exceptionally pleasing. Our waiter was unobtrusive but professional and knowledgeable. Although from Brooklyn, he understood the culture and was testimony that he appreciated this cuisine very much.

Ah, dessert! Our choice were the coconut macaroons with ice cream and chocolate sauce ($7): mildly sweet and a fabulous blend of flavors and textures.

Le Souk Harem is available for large events and will be open seven days a week from 4:00 p.m. offering the Moroccan Tea and Bistro menu at this early hour until 4:00 a.m. Saturday, and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 4 a.m. House music, pop, hip-hop, R&B, Arabic finishing with DJs and much revelry. Dinner service starts at 6:00 p.m. nightly.  

Location: 510 La Guardia Place, between Houston and Bleeker, New York City.

Phone: 212-677-1120


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