There is a
Rick's Café in Casablanca. It's not where the film was shot (that
was a Hollywood set), but a relatively new after-hours place that
nevertheless manages to seem like the real thing (you can almost
hear Sam playing "As Time Goes By" and Humphrey Bogart telling
Ingrid Bergman "Here's looking at you, kid"). But aside from that,
there's little else in this white city on the sea that evokes the
mood of the World War II cinematic classic. Instead it is a modern
metropolis, the largest in Morocco, with the same banks, hotel
chains, and corporations to be found in any 21st-century commercial
center, as well as a smattering of Beaux Arts buildings from the
time of the French protectorate. If not for the old walled
neighborhood, or "medina," the songs of the muezzins calling the
faithful to prayer, and the looming tower of the biggest mosque in
Africa that stands tall enough to be seen from any perspective, you
could easily forget you were in Morocco altogether. Unless, of
course, you happen to be at the Royal Marsden Meridien.
heart of the downtown section and undistinguished from its neighbors
on the outside, this hotel was once owned by the Moroccan royal
family (a large portrait of the father of the present king hanging
in the lobby behind an enormous vase of roses and flanked by a pair
of Moroccan flags is an immediate reminder). Many of its features
like mirrored walls and wrought-iron railings anchor it in the
mid-twentieth-century period when it was built. There is also a
splendid and sky-lit winter garden that brings the Belle Époque to
mind. But it does not take long to realize the Royal Marsden
Meridien embodies the spirit of Morocco, and, according to Mohamed
Douqchi, one of the assistant hotel managers, it is the only one in
Casablanca that does so.
floor, the elevator opens onto a lounge with leather couches and
walls covered with colorful hand-laid diamond-shaped tiles set into
a white background and topped with lace-like plasterwork. Glass
cabinets hold fanciful objects d’art: silver teapots, brass urns,
blue and white ceramics. Sconces are lined with panes of colored
glass. Doorways are elaborately carved, bell-shaped arches that rise
to a point.
floors are decorated differently, but all are in the Moroccan
style," Mohamed says. "This hotel is 100% Moroccan. You cannot find
another one anywhere else in the city."
The youthful hotel executive grew up in Oujda near
the Algerian border. He received a degree in French literature from
an Algerian university and brings the aesthetic sense of a man who
has read Proust and Camus to his work.
"From the first time I saw this hotel, it was a
love story," he told us. "That’s why I have been here for six years.
"No matter where you are in this hotel, you will
always realize you are in Morocco. We try to arrange for our guests
an experience of being deep in the culture. The staff tries to
expose you to the architecture, the people, the food in the Moroccan
manner with Moroccan hospitality."
We swiftly got to understand what Mohamed meant.
Warm and informed, eager to please, everyone we encountered was
enthusiastic over his or her shared heritage -- a combination of
Berber and Arab, the former referring to the original settlers of
Morocco some 10,000 years ago, the latter to a presence dating back
to the seventh century. An infectious attitude prevailed among the
group whether at the front desk -- where the hearty concierge Abdul
arranged a memorable day-trip to the imperial city Rabat, among the
housekeepers and bellmen, or in the hotel's dining rooms.
Abdul at the front desk
Some of the staff: Chef Mohamed Rifai far
Mohamed Douqchi far right
Although the soaring and flower-filled Winter
Garden -- an expansive pillared space with white marble floors,
patio-styled furnishings, and water spilling over tall panes of
glass at its far end -- appeals to continental dining tastes, it has
a local flavor as well. Moroccan soup, irresistible made-to-order
Moroccan crepes, and baskets of dates, dried apricots, walnuts and
almonds are exotic additions to the more traditional breakfast
options. Lunch and dinner offerings make use of excellent local
produce: avocado, grapefruit, orange slices in a salad, wonderful
tomatoes served fresh or in gazpacho with red pepper and basil.
There are platters of smoked salmon with salmon tartar, shrimp salad
topped with red caviar, a variety of grilled beef, fish, a range of
fresh pastas in home-made sauces, an assortment of freshly baked
crusty breads, rolls stuffed with olives.
And then there is Le Douira, a two-room restaurant
on a raised level off the Winter Garden where authentic Moroccan
cuisine is served in a setting Scherazade could have dreamed up for
one of the tales she told over the course of a thousand and one
nights. The smaller of the rooms (reserved for smokers) is a tent
with sumptuous fabric gathered up to the center of the ceiling; the
bigger has round dining tables circling its perimeter, each embraced
by a curved leather settee.
Greeting every diner is Hassan Hassioui who could
have stepped out of a Scherazade tale, a charismatic character who
tantalizes you with the story of a cuisine that blends fifty spices
together into flavors never tasted before while releasing aromas
heady enough to make one swoon. All this in a setting of exquisite
detail: tablecloths and napkins of fine linens hand-embroidered with
blue flowers, blue and white china to match miniature blue and white
tiles, each one set by hand on the walls, an abundance of roses:
massive bouquets in fat ewers on the serving tables, a single
elegant crystal vase with long-stemmed hybrids, a champagne glass on
every dining table holding four pink roses.
Hassan explains the menu in loving detail. The
pastille aux pigeons -- pigeon, almonds, raisins, a bit of sugar and
spices, delicate and aromatic in the flakiest of crusts; a deep and
flavorful chicken soup with vermicelli served in a beautiful tureen
with pieces of chicken floating in the broth; brochettes of beef,
chicken and lamb with oriental rice and raisins; couscous prepared
with different vegetable combinations; a variety of tangines -- the
simmered covered dish of unpredictable combinations like chicken
with lemon and red olives, monkfish with peppers and tomatoes,
minced meat with eggs and cumin, lamb with raisins, prunes, and
To better acquaint us with the seasonings, Hassan
presents a platter displaying very coarse salt, fine pepper and a
“winter” pepper strong enough to make one sneeze, paprika to add a
red/orange coloring, a hot pepper, parsley and fresh garlic.
He brings Chef de Cuisine Mohamed Rifai to our
table. Both have been at the Royal Marsden Meridien for nine years.
With Hassan translating, the chef tells us about the quality of the
fish caught in local waters, the chicken brought in from the
countryside, how long it takes to make a pastille, the prevalence of
sweet and sour combinations.
In his kitchen, they prepare everything by hand,
the traditional way, he says, the way Moroccan women have been doing
it for centuries. They are the ones who go to the market, who cook
in their homes. They know everything. And although he has been
exposed to French and Italian cuisines and is responsible for the
Excellent table, Moroccan cooking is his favorite.
Desserts of Moroccan pastries, fruits, sherbets
and ice creams at Le Douira are followed by sweet, mint tea which
the waiter pours from an ornate silver teapot raised above his head
into a small glass set into a silver holder. Then one is presented
with a small towel and what appears to be a silver samovar and
basin. One puts her hands beneath the spout and by washing them in
the fragrant rose water, concludes a meal not easily forgotten.
All the while, live music enhances the ambience.
One night, Soad Chawki and Ben Slimane Chawki, wife and son of wife
and son of Ahmed Chawki, the renowned director of music at the
Casablanca conservatory, played classical Arabic melodies on string
instruments. Another night, a lovely young woman sang haunting songs
of great poignancy to the accompaniment of a type of guitar. Both
performances anchored the experience of a Royal Mansour Meridien
stay in the traditions of this ancient culture.
The Chawkis play classical Arabic
music at le Douira
But a new direction is emerging in this unique
hotel which has, of late, joined the Starwood collection of luxury
properties. And with the brand designation has come a new general
manager, Renzo Correzzola whose youthful appearance belies years of
global experience that has brought him from his native Italy to
places as distant as New Zealand.
A new g.m.: Renzo
"What attracts me is a new country, a new
continent, a new language and a new culture," he told us over drinks
in the bar on the rim of the Winter Garden. He'd arrived just a few
days ago; his wife and children were still in Rome. "This is a
famous hotel," he said, "a part of Moroccan history. We don't want
to interrupt its famous tradition. At the same time, Starwood is
about innovation, progress, about facing the needs of today's
customers. We plan to take the property from the level where it is
now and bring it to the next level by adding a lot of expertise,
consultative experience and passion."
He continued, "We have a number of very good
people in the hotel who are very passionate. They really make you
feel their heart whether you are a guest or colleague. Once you have
the heart of the people, you can work on the rest. That is the goal
He paused and smiled, then added, "If you want to
find the true Moroccan spirit, you will find it at the Royal Marsden
Meridien. It has the Moroccan heart."
Royal Mansour Meridien
22 avenue de l'Armée Royale
21000 Casablanca, Maroc
Phone: 212 (0) 22 54 60 95
Photographs by Harvey Frommer