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Travel & Leisure
updated 11/15/2011 1:15:39 PM ET 2011-11-15T18:15:39

Marrakesh wallops the senses. A riot of colors (mosaic tiles; woven textiles), sounds (the drone of drums from the central square, Jamâa el Fna), and, of course, tastes. Whether in the souks of the walled Medina or the bourgeois district of Guéliz, there is no better place to savor the diversity of North African cuisine—lamb, couscous, eggplant, all redolent of cumin, saffron, and the crimson pepper sauce harissa—than this ancient crossroads.

Cult morning favorite Espace Fruits Outmane(40 Ave. Moulay Rachid, Guéliz; no phone; breakfast for two $10) might be miniature, but it’s mirrored, tiled, and festooned with soccer ball–scale papayas and grapefruits. At the rickety plastic tables outside, bearded gentlemen aerate their mint teas and pretty young moms ply kids with the thick, tart house yogurt. While awaiting your omelette with dusky shreds of khelea (dried preserved beef), slather up aromatic flat cornbreads with honey and amlou, a nutty-rich almond-and-argan-oil spread that will ruin peanut butter for you forever. Finish with the Panache Outmane—a frothy kiwi, strawberry, and orange juice potion.

The meal of your life...at a Marrakesh gas station? Indeed. A 20-minute hop from town along the old Fez route brings you to Al Baraka(RP 24 Commune Annakhil, Sidi Yousef Ben Ali; 212-524/329-267; lunch for two $30), its cheery outdoor tables an agreeable distance from the pumps. Here’s the drill: flat bread—as blistered and chewy as Rome’s best pizza bianca—at a window where Berber ladies slap dough into a wood-fueled oven. Next, grilled lamb from the butcher shop in the middle. Finish at the tagine station, where coals smolder beneath the blackened conical pots. Good luck choosing between a whole country chicken, pungent with preserved lemons and olives, and tender beef shank fragrant with cloves and sweet, smoky prunes.

An orange sunset floods the tiny windows of the Kutubīyah minaret in the distance, smoke drifts up from myriad food stalls, the gnawa drums throb, and children swarm around snake charmers and monkey trainers. The roof-terrace tables at Café de France(Jamâa El Fna square; 212-524/442-319; tea for two $7) offer the best vantage point for this great Jamâa El Fna square spectacle, but arrive well before twilight to snag a chair with a view. Tasting your way through the square itself can be challenging: the tablecloth stalls are filled with tourists, while the authentic ones can require a stomach of steel. So follow our lead to Hassan(Stall No. 32; snacks for two $5) for juicy merguez sausages served at a tin counter thronged by big families.

As humble street stalls open branches in upscale Guéliz, Haj Mostapha N’Guyer, the local mechoui (roasted lamb) emperor, has joined the wave. Find him first, in robe and skullcap, at his Haj Mostapha stand in a medina alley (Souk Quessabine, off the northeastern end of Jamâa El Fna; no phone; lunch for two $12). Then seek out his alter ego at Chez Lamine(19 Angle Ibn Aicha and Mohamed El Beqal, Résidence Yasmine; 212-524/431-164; lunch for two $16), speaking French and sporting a European-style suit. At both locations the lamb is spectacular: roasted in an underground clay pit until meltingly tender, sold by weight (request the moist neck and rib meat), and served on butcher paper with cumin salt. Your flatbread roll serves as plate, utensil, napkin, and absorber of the rich, fatty goodness.

Once a popular hole-in-the-wall, Plats Haj Boujema(65 Mohamed El Beqal; 212-524/421-862; lunch for two $20) retains its cheap prices and populist spirit despite the (almost) spiffy new digs in Guéliz. Beauties with kohl-rimmed eyes tend to order panini and pizza, but you should opt for the smoky carnivorous offerings. Succulent minced lamb kofte precede perfect beef brochettes, then flash-charred lamb chops, and, for the adventurous, skewers of plush liver or brains. No tasting, please, without the taktuka, a zesty, garlicky tomato-and-green-pepper relish.

Few restaurants in Marrakesh bother with the proper raking, swelling, and multiple steamings of Morocco’s signature semolina grains. Dar Moha(81 Rue Dar el Bacha, Medina; 212-524/386-264; dinner for two $135) bills itself as nouvelle marocaine, but its charismatic celebrity chef-owner Moha Fedal happily takes an ancien approach to couscous. Start with a mosaic of Moroccan salads at your candlelit poolside table on the patio of French designer Pierre Balmain’s former riad. Midway through the degustation menu, a duo of couscous dishes invites you to compare earthier Berber-style barley pellets with the more familiar durum wheat, here as light and fluffy as snowflakes. The dessert pastilla, made with apples and saffron, deliciously contrasts cream and crunch.

The cliché “royal repast” reacquires its zing at the extravagant Royal Mansour Marrakech hotel, owned by the king of Morocco. Need more pedigree? Parisian chef Yannick Alléno of Michelin three-starred Restaurant Le Meurice oversees the hotel’s trio of restaurants. At the lofty La Grande Table Marocaine(Rue Abou Abbas el Sebti, Medina; 212-529/808-080; dinner for two $370), chandeliers glitter onto filigreed metal tables under a coffered ceiling. A waitress in a white caftan reveals a tagine pot’s treasure: sweetly spiced duck meatballs stuffed into tender artichoke hearts. The regal highlight: seffa medfouna, a complex veal-and-apricot stew, buried in a mound of ethereal, thrice-steamed vermicelli ornamented with almonds and cinnamon.

Run by the female members of the Chab clan and specializing in the intricate flavors of Fez, Al Fassia Aguedal(9 bis Rte. de l’Ourika, Zone Touristique de l’Aguedal; 212-524/381-138; dinner for two $65) is equally adored by tourists, opinionated French expats, and local foodies. The newer Aguedal location is more sociable than the original branch, with celebrating families upstairs and couples on the low, cushy banquettes on the ground floor. Bilingual servers will chat you through the 15 appetizers: salad-y dishes featuring three sumptuous iterations of carrots, an orange-blossom-scented tomato jam, and dainty, crisp briouat pastries. Don’t miss the majestic whole lamb shoulder for two—slowly roasted, its brown, burnished glaze is punctuated by almonds. At meal’s end, the giggly madames will refresh you with hand towels scented with orange-flower water.

Why schlep to Marrakesh for a bowl of spaghetti? Because Campania’s über-chef Alfonso Iaccarino is the genius behind L’Italien(Ave. Bab Jdid, Medina; 212-524/388-600; dinner for two $150), within the renovated La Mamounia hotel. While the Jacques Garcia design is all dark, vampy opulence, the spaghetti Don Alfonso is an essay in sunny simplicity: a vibrant sugo of baby tomatoes clings just so to the al dente pasta from Gragnano producer Gentile, a single fragrant basil leaf the only garnish. The other primi present an equally bella figura. Begin with the gossamer lobster fritto and fade out with a luscious, boozy Sorrentine baba au rhum, a dream of Amalfi by way of the Sahara.

Artistique!” cry sweet-toothed locals about the almond-y handiwork of Madame Alami, sugar diva of Al Jawda pastry shop (11 Rue de la Liberté, Guéliz; 212-524/433-897; pastries for two $5). Feet aching? Claim a noir rattan chair on the terrace of her Parisian-looking Al Jawda Plus tearoom (84 Ave. Mohammed V; 212-524/434-662; pastilla for two $12) and order the definitive version of pastilla, Morocco’s baroque pigeon pie. Crunchy yet light without the usual excess dusting of sugar, the warqa pastry encloses a sweet-savory marvel of tender, chunky braised pigeon in a plush ambience of ground almonds and beaten eggs. It arrives redolent of orange-flower water and a complex blend of spices. End with cornes de gazelles pastry half-moons and ultra-crumbly ghriba cookies. On the other side of town, by the covered produce souk, the dollhouse displays of some six dozen syrup-glistening pastries and date sweetmeats at Patisserie Anjar(121 Ave. Houmane El Fetouaki, Arset Lamaâch; 212-524/378-983) entice even the pastry-phobic. The white-chocolate-glazed almond-and-citron confection tastes like marzipan from heaven.

The minimalist Sky Bar(89 Angle Blvds. Zerkhtouni and Mohammed V, Guéliz; 212-524/337-777; drinks for two $15), at the 1950’s-style Hotel La Renaissance, is the highest perch in the city. Come before dusk for the snowcapped Atlas Mountains vista, an ice-cold Casablanca beer, and the incongruous sight of macho dudes in Ray-Bans enjoying drinks with fruit slices. Once the red rooftop bar sign lights up, amble over to the lobby drinking den at the BAB Hotel(cocktails for two $24), where drinks are accompanied by Morocco-inspired tapas. The visuals here constitute another kind of tour de force, with a cool, camel-bone-tiled counter and lampshades of shaggy recycled plastic. The libations list is equally cheeky. How about a Jack Is Back—vodka zapped with kiwi, lemon, and ginger?

Franco-Italian aristocrat Fabrizio Ruspoli has added 10 rooms to La Maison Arabe(doubles from $250; half-day cooking classes from $75 per person), his sybaritic riad on the medina’s edge. The cooking school remains stellar, with small class sizes for a total immersion into the fragrant North African cuisine. Instructor Dada Fatiha learned from her mother, who cooked for a local pasha. Before rolling up their sleeves to make flaky briouat pastries and a chicken tagine accented with cinnamon and sesame seeds, students tour the spice market and cull tips from congenial university professor Mohammed Nahir. (A saffron secret? Pulverize it in a mortar with a touch of salt before using.) Lessons conclude with a DIY feast overlooking a dreamy pool flanked by olive trees.

Savvy shoppers head to the venerable Mellah souk (near Place des Ferblantiers), in Marrakesh’s old Jewish ghetto, where donkeys ferry huge loads along narrow passageways, striped-robed vendors tend conical piles of turmeric and paprika, and sacks bulge with dried rosebuds and sandalwood. Take in the scene over a sage tea or anise-spiked Arabic coffee on the balcony café of the Art de Vivre Oriental complex (88 Rue de Commerce Hay Salam, Mellah; 212-524/389-791; tea for two $2). Stock up on saffron, spice blends, and medicinal tisanes at Herboristerie Ibnou Nafiss(52 Rue Dar Daou, Arset Lamaâch; 212-655/560-822). Those looking for chic hand-painted tea glasses and earth-toned artisanal linen place mats and tablecloths should visit Scènes de Lin(70 Rue de la Liberté, Guéliz; 212-524/436-108). For argan oil—both cosmetic and culinary—and vibrant essences from organic ingredients grown on the owner’s farm, get Nectarome-brand products at Essence des Sens(52 Rue Mouassine, Medina; 212-6/7696-3107): the orange-flower water will perfume desserts or fruit salads, and a dash of black sesame oil can transform a stew. Dizzy from endless patterns? The tea sets, candlesticks, and mini tagine pots at Jamade(1 Place Douar Graoua, Rue Riad Zitoun J’did, Medina; 212-524/429-042), produced by artisans and women’s collectives, feature fluid, modern shapes, smooth glazing, and eye-popping monochrome hues.

Copyright © 2012 Amex

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