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
“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.
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
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
Phone: 212 (0)24 38 73 1
Photographs by Harvey Frommer