There is no shortage of restaurants in Marrakech – there are new ones popping up every week. However, if can be difficult to find something that represents good value (whether cheap or expensive) and it’s often difficult to find a menu more extensive than the usual tajine or couscous dishes.
On a recent two-night trip to Marrakech, we had two very different tourist eating experiences: we ate at a stand on Place Jmaa el Fna one night and on the second, we pushed the boat out and had a celebratory meal at Pepenero, currently #2 of 269 Marrakech restaurants on Trip Advisor.
Place Jmaa el Fna
Marrakech’s main square undergoes a transformation every day at dusk. As the orange juice stands and water sellers retreat and the selections of false teeth and folk remedies are packed away, the food hawkers wheel their mobile kitchens, benches and tables out onto their allotted pitches, lit by bare bulbs. As the cooking begins, the steam rises and the lightbulbs twinkle in competition with the stars. As the acrobats, Gnaoua musicians and dancing boys appear for the entertainment of the diners and those taking an evening stroll, the atmosphere seems tinged with a hint of the magical and mediaeval.
If it weren’t for the banter of the hawkers and the conversation and companionship of our fellow tourists, packed in along the narrow benches beside the trestle tables, our meal would have been disappointing. I took issue with our waiter who served us a saucer of couscous bouillon as ‘vegetable tajine’. When I told him his ‘tajine’ would not grace my own table, he promised a ‘proper’ one the following evening. (But we had other ideas – see below).
Among Moroccans, who don’t baulk at the idea, Place Jmaa el Fna is well-known for the opportunity to eat sheep’s head (including ears, eyes and brain). I left that ‘delicacy’ to my friend and ate instead a passable harira soup, which was sub-contracted from the soup stand nearby.
Eating on the square is at the top of the ‘must-do’ list for visitors to Marrakech. However, it’s not what it once was – the offer (on laminated menus in at least 4 languages) has become increasingly organised and homogenised and you pay for the experience more than the quality of the food. However, no-one hurries you and on a warm evening I like to tune in to the sales patter and the ingenious methods and variety of languages used by the waiters to tempt tourists onto their stand. And between the identikit brochette/ merguez/ tajine/ couscous stands you can still find stands selling only tea; barrows laden with sweet sticky baklava and – of course – the odd steamed sheep’s head.
When I first heard of Pepenero’s reputation, I wondered why one would travel to Marrakech for Italian food. When we spotted the stylish black and white signs dotted around the Riad Zitoun Jdid area of the medina and followed them to their destination, we realised how little justice the description of ‘Italian restaurant’ really did for Pepenero. And when we managed to book a table there the following night, we could not believe our luck! In an awe-inspiring setting, knowledgeable and polite (but not stuffy) staff serve outstanding food. Miss it and miss out!!
Pepenero is down a series of winding alleyways and is set in a kind of double riad. It is probably the most beautiful and romantic place in which I have even eaten. (Le Tanjia in the Marrakech Mellah comes a close second on the interior design front, although I see it gets mixed reviews on everything else these days). The first courtyard is dimply lit and features a traditional riad garden complete with fountain and under-lit pool; the second has the main restaurant seating around another fountain, flanked by a zellij-tiled wall fountain and two salons off at either end offer additional seating and windows opening into the courtyard. There were traditional interior features and handicrafts from floor to ceiling. No photos I took could do the place justice with its subdued lighting and tinkling fountains.
But we didn’t just come to sit and gape at the surroundings. While we ate a fluffy, creamy salmon mousse amuse-bouche, our waiter expertly helped us through the Italian menu (if it had been in Arabic, French or English we would have been fine!). There is also a Moroccan menu and we decided to mix and match.
We shared the selection of Moroccan salads as a starter. Moroccan salads are often made with cooked vegetables which are dressed and served at room temperature. In my opinion, this kind of home cooking is not prevalent enough on the average restaurant menu. The Pepenero salads – roast red pepper, roast green pepper, zaluq (smoky roast aubergine) and foul (broad beans flavoured with confit lemons) – were delicately flavoured and demonstrated why Moroccan cuisine deserves a place on the top table of global cuisine.
I don’t normally bother with a pasta course, but the idea of heavenly Moroccan saffron was irresistible, so we shared a Risotto Carnaroli allo Zafferanoca. The flavour of the risotto was simple and let the saffron shine through. The texture was perfect: not too al dente, but not too soupy. It was fresh and fabulous!
For the main course, we went Italian again: my companion chose a filet steak, whereas I took the sea bass. Both were presented on fresh, succulent seasonal vegetables – baked vegetables (mushrooms, tomatoes and sugar snaps) with the bass and pan-fried carrots, leeks, French beans and fennel with the beef. I can only speak for my main, but it was exquisite – the folk rule about not eating fish in Marrakech does not apply at Pepenero!
After all that, a dessert was a tad too much, but our mint tea was accompanied by small homemade pastries, which provided a sweet finish to a perfect meal.
In my opinion, Pepenero is excellent value for money. You can spend a lot more in Marrakech to eat at the latest ‘in’ location and still only be offered tajine. For two courses, a bottle of wine and one of water plus complementary amuse bouches, bread and patisseries, in an idyllic setting and served by professional, attentive staff, just over 700dh (around £55) was a gift! I could not easily find the quality of dishes or location in Europe for that figure and the pricing reflects the lower overheads in Morocco that many feted Marrakchi restaurants don’t bother to do. Chef Khalid Robazza Essafa has found a winning formula.
Following the meal, guests are offered a taxi service (there is also – rarely for the Medina – parking nearby) or are escorted by a staff member resplendent in black jellaba and red felt fez back through the labyrinthine streets to Place Jmaa el Fna.
Top tips: On their website, Pepenero is currently offering a free dessert to those celebrating a special occasion. We also found that a booking request from a hotel or riad carried more sway than an individual reservation.
© Lynn Sheppard (words and pictures)