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 The Heart of Moroccan Tradition at Casablanca’s Royal Marsden Meridien

FrommerLuxuryTravel
Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

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.

            In the 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.  

            On every 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.

            "All the 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 left,

                  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.

                                    The Winter Garden

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.

                             The captivating Hassan Hassioui

 

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 grilled almonds.

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 Winter Garden's

Excellent table, Moroccan cooking is his favorite. Small wonder.

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 Correzzola

"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 of Starwood."

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
Web:  http://www.starwoodhotels.com

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
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

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

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