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Riad Lotus Privilège In Marrakech

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

The car picks us up at our hotel about eight o'clock in the evening. We drive down a broad, brightly lit boulevard in Marrakech's Ville Nouvelle to the old section, pass through one of the gate in the ancient red clay wall, and enter the Medina. Earlier in the day, we had walked the byways of the shaded souks in this ancient imperial city. Rays of sunlight were streaming through the striated roofs striking caftans and djellabas swaying on hangers. Peppers, artichokes, cucumbers. onions, brilliant tomatoes, sacks of almonds were being unloaded from donkey-drawn carts. Stalls were crowded with customers seeking spices, textiles, hand-hammered silver ornaments, Moroccan-style ceramics, embroidered slippers. Dazzled by the displays, the crowds and cacophony, we strove to take it all in while, at the same time, avoid collision with motor scooters swirling down the narrow lanes.

Now the car stops in the middle of a street we may have walked on hours before. But in the dim light of a few streetlamps, it is totally unrecognizable, deserted and silent. The driver gets out and bids us follow him through a winding alley for what seems like a considerable distance. Then suddenly, he stops before an elaborately carved wooden door.

We step inside, and it is as if we walked into a dream. We are in a courtyard open to the star-filled sky, standing on ground with huge black and white marble tiles paved in a checkerboard pattern. Around us are the white stucco walls of a two-story building lined with arches, before us a small swimming pool with a pair of mirrored obelisks on either side. There are teakwood lounges and tables, long white couches, orange and lemon trees set in circles of sand with garden tables, towering plants. This is the Riad Privilège, a small, exclusive guest house of the Lotus brand ("riad" being the Moroccan term for guest house), totally hidden from the outside world.

"We are only one-year old," says Olaf Galaburda, the riad's very tall and soft-spoken director. "But the building itself is from the 11th century. The original owner was a friend of the king of the Berbers. Of course, it is completely renovated. We had to install electricity, running water. Only the roof and the arches are from the original structure."

Olaf tells us he has worked in hotels in many parts of the world, even the Adirondack region of  New York State. But the Riad Privilège is out of the ordinary.

There are several dining room tables in the salon but we are brought to a smaller adjacent room where a table is set for our party of four. The walls are painted dark green. Red and white fabric is gathered up to the ceiling creating the illusion of a sumptuous tent. Gold draperies that hide the entrance to the kitchen match the backs of chairs shaped like scallop shells. The round table is covered with a white cloth and sprinkled with tiny mirrored discs. And hanging from the high ceiling is a chandelier with strands of crystals like endless rows of pearls. The sensation of being in a dream intensifies.

We are served a six-course tasting menu that combines French and Moroccan cuisines -- just possibly the best of two worlds. There are briouattés with smoked salmon, a confit of tomatoes in citron sauce, risotto with parmesan cheese, fried oysters, tangine with pigeon and almonds, and white fish topped with caramelized onion, lentils and tiny white raisins on a bed of couscous.

 “C'est bon?” the server asks after each course is completed. “Oh yes," we say, "c’est bon!” The service is impeccable, every plate served from the right, brought and removed from the table unobtrusively, timed to perfection.

Dessert is a pear tart in a crème Anglais sauce enhanced by the addition of coconut which lends a creamy whiteness, lovely flavor and fragrance to the fruit. At this point, chef Khalid Lihyaoui comes through the parted gold drapes to take a bow.

"Khalid is Moroccan and was trained in Marrakech," Olaf tells us as we conclude dinner with Moroccan pastries and the standard mint tea. "The owners found him and had him prepare a dinner for them. On that basis, he was hired."

We ask Khalid what distinguishes Moroccan food. He says there are these different regions in the country that produce different ingredients: the lamb from the mountains, the fish from the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the excellent produce grown throughout the land. They are all combined in interesting ways, in sweet and sour dishes, with the addition of dates, raisins, almonds, wonderful Moroccan spices (one spice that has 36 ingredients can be found in the market).  Also there is the French influence that remains from the time of the protectorate.

The French and Moroccan cuisines: Chef Khalid Lihyaoui

Pouring from a height: Moroccan mint tea

Khalid oversees a kitchen with three workers for lunch and dinner. A Moroccan woman prepares a special breakfast menu that changes every day with different Moroccan specialties. It is his first experience as a chef. His mentor was the well known English chef Richard Neat with whom Khalid worked in Marrakech and then Nice. But Neat has since gone to Costa Rica to write the story of his life, and Khalid has moved on to become chef of this extraordinary property.

It had been an exceptional evening in a breathtaking setting, we thought as we walked through the long alley once again accompanied by the driver who then drove us back to our hotel. This is a standard service offered to non-resident guests who want to dine at the Riad.   A good idea --  one could hardly find his way here in the middle of the day, let alone at night.

"The charm of the riad lies in its hidden locale," Olaf had said. "Behind the walls, all is protected from the heat, the dust, the noise of the road.

The Riad Privilège keeps its secret.

Riad Lotus Privilège
9, Derb Ali Ben Hamdouche Medina
Marrakech, Morocco

Phone: 212 (0)24 38 73 1
Web:  http://www.riadslotus.com8

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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