27.10.2011 - 27.10.2011 25 °C
Friday, October 28th
On the train from Fes to Asilah, a town one hour south of Tangier.
Sampling the local cuisine by eating out hasn’t been one of the main foci of our trip, mainly because in any Eurozone country it’s just too damned expensive to eat out much. In many of the countries we’ve visited, it’s amazing that the locals actually manage to eat out at all. However, we’ve been in a few countries where we’ve taken advantage of cheap prices and good food to eat out, and in these cases we seem to have eaten out a lot.
Morocco is definitely one of those countries, and in Fes we enjoyed eating out at our favourite local, La Palma, where we dine every time we’re in Fes. Take a taxi from the Gare (train station) and ask for Bab Boujloud, the most common gate for tourists to enter the medina. As you step through the gigantic arch, blue on one side, the colour of Fes, and green on the other side, the colour of Islam, you are now in the most restaurant dense area of the medina. La Palma is the second establishment on the left, and just opposite it is their arch rival, Les Jeunes. Now, we have a habit of developing instant and perhaps somewhat unnecessary loyalty to eating establishments. In Selçuk, Turkey, you’ll recall, we ate at Mehmet and Ali Baba’s Kebap House three nights in a row, having discarded on the second night the idea of dining in the neighbouring Wallabee House Restaurant. In Istanbul, we dropped in every day for pide and Turkish tea (black, strong, and as sweet as you like) at the Çemberlitaş Cafe. In Marrakech, we ate breakfast every day on the pedestrian street leading to Place Jemaa El Fna at a small cafe, with apparently no name, at which mostly locals seemed to be enjoying their Moroccan pancakes (we found out the name, which I’ve temporarily forgotten, but they are quite similar to Indian chapattis, only generally smothered liberally with miel), mint tea, coffee, avocado milkshakes, and slices of cake. We were invited into this tiny cafe by the very genial, uniformed waiter, who welcomed us in with a wave of his arm and a pleasant smile. I think that part of our loyalty to these places is always the disarmingly wonderful personality of our waiters. This fellow was genuinely welcoming, even though the cafe was clearly not designed for tourists, witness the lack of multilingual menu, prices on a board on the wall all in Arabic. Our second morning, he gave us a big smile, shook my hand, and showed us to our table, as if it had been obvious that we would be back, and he had been expecting us to arrive just about that time. At Mehmet and Ali Baba’s Kebap House, we couldn’t possibly have enjoyed our meals as much without the irrepressibly cheerful and garrulous Mehmet.
In Fes, we were somehow convinced to sit down and enjoy the set menu by our waiter, let’s call him Abdul. Although there were two waiters, it was his job to rush out onto the street (alley) and greet, invite, and cajole potential customers into the restaurant. Although we did see locals in La Palma, clearly their focus was the business of tourists. Abdul could smile, greet, and cajole in at least Arabic, French, English, and Italian, and although I never heard him speak other languages, probably also Spanish and German. The set menu, essentially soup or salad, couscous or tajine, drink, and dessert, along with bread and olives as appies, was clearly labelled at 70 Dirham, but today only, he was able to offer us a special student price (???) of 40 Dirham. Now most of the set menu prices we’ve been used to were 20 Euros (Venice), 15 Euros (Paris), or 10 Euros (Lisbon), but even if you take the Lisbon price, multiply by 1.5 to get $15, and multiple by four people, you’ve arrived at a $60 meal, compared to $12 to buy some bread, cheese, a few veggies, and perhaps even a cheap bottle of wine. But 40 Dirham is only $5, so for $20 total we all get a sit-down meal, and that’s good enough value that it’s hard to refuse. So we sat down. The couscous and tajine are all available with various meats, including chicken, beef, and lamb, but even if we weren’t vegetarians, having seen the meat stores in the medina we’d be rather unlikely to choose these options, so vegetarian couscous it was. The first night, our bill was 150 Dirham, as we ordered a large bottle of water with the meal. The second night, our waiter shook my hand as we came in and showed us cheerfully to our table, outside this time as it wasn’t threatening to rain. The bill was 140 Dirham (three set menus at 40 each, plus Alison’s omelette and fries at 20), as we didn’t order a bottle of water, but he brought us one anyways, plus a bonus bottle of fanta for Alison. The third night, the bill was again 140 Dirham, including the free water, and this time Alison had a bonus fresh orange juice, which the second waiter was sent out to get from a nearby stall.
I mentioned earlier our restaurant’s arch rival across the street, Les Jeunes, or “The Young People,” Sunny tells us. They also had a greeter waiter, older than ours but nonetheless wearing a toque and skinny jeans, but the first night he was unsuccessful at getting us into the restaurant; indeed, his restaurant seemed largely vacant that first night. The second night, as we were approaching the confluence of restaurants (a third restaurant, Le Kasbah, a multi-storey affair, was on a corner opposite the other two restaurants) he greeted us with his menu and tried to convince us to come in, but instead we again decided to eat at La Palma. As we ate, it was fun to watch our greeter and their greeter both rush out and greet potential customers, competing for business. Occasionally, passersby would be besieged by all three greeters. Luckily, their sales techniques were very friendly, devoid of any of the pushy aggression displayed by a small percentage of the shop owners. One Italian couple initially declined all three greeters and wandered past, only to return, be surrounded once again, and finally choose our restaurant. We cheered our waiter’s success.
Our last night, we thought we’d check out the row of five or so restaurants around the corner. They all had a greeter, each with their own technique, but with essentially the same menu, all priced more or less the same for items a la carte, and all with a 70 Dirham set menu. We politely declined the greeters as we wandered down the row, but as we returned in the opposite direction we were pleasantly surprised to be told that we could have a special just for today reduced set menu price of 50 Dirham. As we already had a favourite restaurant, with an even better price, we headed back to La Palma. The betoqued greeter of Les Jeunes gave it one last heroic effort. With his best English and sheepish grin, he greeted us with his menu and “Just one night?”, as he had obviously watched us eat at La Palma the previous two nights. However, our waiters spotted us and quickly came over to tell him off and usher us into our restaurant. We don’t speak much Arabic, but it was easy to guess that they were saying “Oh, nice try, buddy. As if! Get your own customers. These are our people!” I’m pretty sure it’s a friendly, congenial competition, with no hard feeling, however. One night, the Les Jeunes greeter was likely feeling a bit worn out, and he sat down casually at one of the tables in our restaurant without incident.
We enjoyed once again pretty much the same meal we’d been eating for the last two nights. It was plentiful and reasonable, without necessarily being spectacular. Alison tried using her Arabic phrases with our waiter (they are both religious, taught to her by her grandad), and he sat down to write out some useful phrases for her, as well as the numbers one to ten, then had her practice them until she sounded quite authentic. As we headed out of the medina to catch a taxi to the Gare this morning, we passed the three restaurants. The greeters for Le Kasbah and Les Jeunes both waved us goodbye and said “Bon voyage”, very pleasant considering we never ate in their restaurants and obviously were no longer potential customers, and our waiter hopped off his step to come and shake our hands and say goodbye. We miss our favourite waiters, and also their restaurants, and we’ll remember them fondly as one of the best parts of the trip.