'Can I get a real couscous around here?"
It was a good question, posed to me recently by a French expat hankering for a bowl of North African soul food. The mere suggestion, of course, kick-started my own craving - with savory flashbacks to a Morocco trip and the rustic little couscouserie I lived over during my student days in Paris. And that query was also the main reason I ended up below ground near Rittenhouse Square, waiting hopefully on the elaborately tufted couches of the quirky subterranean nook called Argan Moroccan Cuisine.
Couscous, after all, is a mighty grain of contradictions. We think we know it, but we don't. It's seemingly everywhere, but virtually nowhere at all in its true form. It's one of America's undisputed stars of ethnic food assimilation, now in its golden era of supermarket ubiquity. But the quick-cook boxed version has become such a mainstream staple of just-add-water convenience that those clumpy specks of mushy pasta are about as exotic as Rice-A-Roni. The genuine item is as rare as a Berber on Broad Street.
Argan's chef-owner, Mounir Draissi, is about as close as we get, just three blocks west of Broad, in a modest cafe tucked a few steps down from the 17th Street sidewalk. A native of Meknes (near the northern coast), he descends, in fact, from a Berber grandma. And he takes no shortcuts in either flavor or technique, taking nearly an hour-and-a-half to moisten, hand-fluff, and steam his semolina grains in stages, steeping them to finish with a gingered saffron broth rich in vegetables and spice. An extra smidge of smen - a Berber-style butter Draissi ages himself for three years - lends the grains a shade of extra earthy intensity.
The couscous is available only at dinner, due to the process, but every grain in the fluffy pile was distinct and infused with flavor. The couscous was mounded into hand-painted Moroccan bowls and ringed with batons of stewed zucchini and carrot. I savored it here in many variations - topped with a cinnamon-scented braised lamb shank that practically melted off the bone, a baked salmon fillet slathered in the cuminy green tang of a cilantro chermoula, and a tender half-chicken infused with preserved lemon. Our neighbors seemed to revel in the hearty vegetarian version, as well. The only thing I needed, which Draissi's wife, Ilham, happily brought me, was a side bowl of extra broth dabbed with house-made harissa to ignite the dish. And I was back in the couscous zone: question answered.
A larger question, though, led me to some mixed results. Can the two-year-old Argan live up to its potential to be an all-around Moroccan bistro rather than a one-dish wonder?
I have no doubts that, under normal circumstances, Draissi has the passion and instincts as a cook to deliver some wonderfully authentic flavors. The handmade bread alone, those warm and fluffy semolina rounds that take three hours to bake each morning, are worth the trip, their earthy sweetness vaguely reminiscent of a fine corn bread. Add a dish of olives tinged with harissa chile paste and thyme, then maybe a platter of Argan's dips - creamy baba ganoush, fiery shakshuka of red peppers and tomato, simple hummus, and a roasty zaalouk of cuminy eggplant and tomatoes - and the meal is off to a great start, with plenty of good flavors to follow.
But with humble means, and only 40 seats in its modest but tidy dining room, Argan's success could hinge on dealing with the random pitfalls of running a small family business - such as finding a plug for the dishwasher's cell-phone charger that won't short out the exhaust hood and shut down the grill in the middle of the lunch rush; or having enough help to deal with a suddenly full dining room.
A recent dinner was a worst-case scenario. With Ilham called away to Morocco on a sudden family matter and unable to placate diners with her usual charm, and the kitchen shorthanded after a cook quit that Monday, a solo Mounir lost his grip on the flow of orders as one large party after another unexpectedly piled through the front door.
Some of us received our meals promptly - savoring the vividly spiced pink links of grilled lamb merguez sausage Draissi has made to order at a halal butcher in the Northeast; crunching through flaky bastilla "cigars" stuffed with seafood, vermicelli and leeks, and fresh salads topped with spice-crisped haloumi cheese. Other larger groups, though, simmered in hungry anticipation that became irate when it was clear the kitchen was in the weeds. The painfully shy Draissi glanced up with an unforgettably startled look to find one woman standing beside his open kitchen, glowering. She delivered an ultimatum for their meals as sharp as a pitchfork: "Two minutes, or we're out!"
Two weeks later, Ilham was back in the dining room. Mounir had hired new help. But it underscored the fragility of building a small restaurant from the ground up - to the point where Mounir is still working a morning job at another cafe to keep Argan afloat.
Trained in Morocco as an architect, he's worked in kitchens since arriving in Philadelphia 13 years ago, beginning as a dishwasher at Rococo, then moving his way up to the line there as well as at such places as Cuba Libre and even Tangerine, whose nouveau Moroccan inspirations were occasionally disconcerting to his traditional sensibilities (the chicken-centric ras al hanout spice with calamari? Never!)
He was determined to make Argan a showcase for more authentic flavors - minus the touristy banquet menus and belly dancers that have long been the calling card of local Moroccan haunts. It has been a learning experience. Protracted exhaust-hood issues with the city forced Argan to focus early on the casual lunch trade, with sandwiches on that homemade semolina bread stuffed with tender slow-roasted lamb, caraway-flavored beef meatballs in tomato sauce, vegetarian options, or saffron-chicken brochettes.
His earliest attempts to serve more adventurous dishes at dinner did not find a ready audience, as Draissi repeatedly threw out unordered batches of Moroccan liver meatballs and veal feet stewed with chickpeas. The result was logical yet unfortunate, as Draissi's menu hedged conservative and a bit off-focus. No one needs to visit Argan for pasta with shrimp, scallops with bland butter sauce, or seafood paella, even if Moroccans eat those things. The $25 rack of lamb - the most expensive item among entrees around $20 - can also be missed.
No, the tastes of Argan I covet are those that come from the slow stew, like the hearty harira bowls of chickpea-lentil soup that transport me back to one of the food stalls that pop up each night on the giant Marrakech plaza called Djemaa el Fna. Or especially the tagine of braised lamb shank, similar to the lamb with couscous, but glazed in honey and topped with stewed prunes, toasted almonds, and sesame seeds.
It's sweet enough that dessert might become optional. But there are exquisite little Moroccan pastries stuffed with almond paste and chewy semolina msmen crepes dipped in aged butter and honey. I washed mine down with fragrant pots of sweet mint tea and smiled, knowing my plans were already set for that next real couscous fix.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Avalon in West Chester. Contact him at email@example.com.