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North African Modern 

The music and spices remain the same, but the dishes are up-to-date.

Wednesday, Aug 27 2008

Sometime between the Summer of Love and Mabuhay Gardens' punkadelic heyday, four Moroccan restaurants of varying quality but almost identical cuisine and ambience opened and flourished in San Francisco. (We were just entering the modern era of Bay Area foodie-ism, and North African cuisine, like sushi, rijsttafel, and microbrewed beer, was a hot commodity.) At El Mansour on Clement, Pasha in Polk Gulch, Mamounia out in the avenues, and Marrakech in the Tenderloin (the movement's standard-bearer), San Franciscans in search of something different from the dim sum and zabaglione they'd grown accustomed to could settle down to a little kasbah exotica.

A cup of lamb and lentil soup was the inevitable first course, followed by a platter of pita bread, hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj (more Arabian than Moroccan, but what the hell). Next came a piping-hot bastilla, the adventurous gourmet's holy grail: a weirdly delicious filo turnover stuffed with chicken, nuts, and scrambled eggs and sprinkled, by God, with sugar and cinnamon. For the main course you could opt for couscous or shish kebab or a lemony tajine; mint tea and baklava concluded the meal. The best part of the whole Moroccan restaurant experience, though, was that you got to eat with your fingers, sit on big comfy cushions, wash your hands in rosewater, and, if you'd imbibed enough arak, make a fool of yourself dancing alongside the in-house belly-dancer.

Well, times change. The belly-dancers are still around, but the ban on utensils went out about the same time Japanese restaurants stopped making you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. And in the past few years a new breed of North African restaurant — places like Saha, Baraka, Tajine, and Aziza — has taken a leaf from the California cuisine playbook and introduced dishes that respect the traditional concepts but strike out in new, lighter, fusion-inspired directions.

The most recent example is Cossu in the old Pasha location at Broadway and Polk. Purchased by Zouhair and Jennifer Senhaji a year ago, the place was damaged in a fire a few months later and had to shut down for half a year of renovations. The couple decided to use that time to overhaul Pasha's aging concept and reopen under their new moniker.

To that end, executive chef Hicham Senhaji supplemented the tried-and-true menu items with globally inspired reinventions of Moroccan classics. "We've introduced lighter, fresher dishes that still respect the native cuisine," says Hicham, Zouhair's brother and an alumnus of the Casablanca Sheraton as well as the Palace and the Fairmont in San Francisco.

The interior's tented-oasis ambience, meanwhile, has been restored and enhanced with sumptuous new burgundy-and-tapestry trappings and oceans of billowing fabric. Diners still sit at low burnished-brass tables in pools of indirect lighting, sipping those arak-laced cocktails, and on Friday and Saturday nights the drumming and dancing continue into the wee hours more or less unabated. The end result is similar in many respects to the old Pasha — it's still a swell magic-carpet sort of a place to get away from it all and enjoy a fun evening — but with better food this time.

Take the couscous, Morocco's national dish. Pellets of semolina are steamed over a pot of simmering meat, vegetables, and spices, allowing them to absorb the ingredients' myriad flavors. As with paella or fondue, just about anything can be thrown into the pot, and at Cossu you can choose from among lamb, chicken, prawn, vegetable, or merguez (sausage) versions. We opted for the Cossu Royal Couscous ($26), which serves up a little bit of each. The couscous itself was the lightest and fluffiest we'd ever tasted, with a moist texture and an almost buttery richness. Arranged on top was the housemade sausage, pleasantly pungent and bursting with flavor; succulent if fatty chunks of boneless lamb; dry, overcooked chicken; and an array of vegetables just this side of mushy — a mixed blessing.

Tajine is another Moroccan staple, a one-pot stew redolent, again, of whatever spices and ingredients the chef wants to throw into the mix. Cossu's Cornish hen tajine ($22) employs olives and house-cured salted lemons, two favorite accents that add a welcome astringency to the tender fowl. Another tajine, this one all-vegetable, was less successful, with more undistinguished, overcooked veggies swimming in a barely seasoned tomato sauce. And the chicken brochette, grilled and served with saffron rice and baby vegetables, was just more dried-out meat with a bare minimum of smoky flavor.

Cossu comes into its own when it edges away from the classic repertory. The pan-seared honey Muscovy duck ($26), for instance, was lush and tender with an underlying sweetness that married beautifully with its spicy apricot-cinnamon coulis and bed of pine-nut–ribboned couscous. Bastilla ($15), the great Moroccan sweet and savory pastry, gets a delectable overhaul here, forsaking the usual chicken-almond filling for a robust Mediterranean ragout of shrimp, calamari, whitefish, and a souk's worth of spices, perfectly balanced against the crisp, light filo pastry that encompasses it. (The classic chicken and powdered sugar variety is also on the menu if you're in a more traditional mood.)

The Cossu Sampler of appetizers is hit-and-miss, serving up succulent jumbo prawns wrapped in crunchy wonton skins and served with a tangy ginger-cilantro dipping sauce; a yummy if displaced Indonesian satay with silky, cumin-scented peanut sauce; a surprisingly mild garlic-deprived hummus; and an equally bland assortment of goat-cheese–stuffed puff pastries. But another starter, tuna tartare ($14), jazzes the creamy texture of the raw fish with capers and harissa (the Tunisian cumin-cayenne spice mix) and is served atop crunchy pita triangles: a marvelous treat.

At dessert time a server came around to pour Morocco's distinctively sweet and soothing mint-laced green tea into our fluted glasses in a long, vertiginous stream, a bit of showbizzery that also serves to cool the brew to sipping temperature. It was served with a mocha-edged crème brûlée, all smooth, silky texture and crunchy chapeau, and a lemony, pistachio-packed baklava so moist with honey it was positively creamy. By this time the music had started and the belly dancer was balancing a scimitar on her hipbone and the encompassing folds of crimson fabric had transported us far from the slopes of Russian Hill. Cossu still has a few kinks to work out in the menu department, but the concept endures.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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