The arrival of a new Moroccan restaurant is decided cause for celebration in the Bay Area. Mediterranean, we've got. But we're not exactly flush with tagines, couscous and those marvelous little salads that dot the tables of Marrakech and Fes.
Having just returned from Morocco in May, we could not wait to try the new Doukkala, a California-Moroccan hybrid in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. The name hails from an agricultural, coastal region of Morocco, south of Casablanca, which reminded owner Jamal Zahid of Northern California.
Doukkala is off to a promising start with a great location and decor that awakens every Moroccan-Arabian Nights fantasy, with its swooping, draped ceilings, Moroccan lanterns and colorful banquettes. As for the appealing menu, chef Eric Lanvert, who hails from San Francisco's Rue Saint Jacques and Cote Sud, uses French technique to combine those signature Moroccan flavors with California's organic ingredients.
A classic, sugar-dusted, phyllo-wrapped pastilla is made with Mendocino quail, not pigeon. And a Wagyu beef steak with cognac reduction owes more allegiance to Paris than Fes. And the wine list boasts bottles (and glasses and half-glasses) from California, Washington, Lebanon and Morocco, where the country's largest winery, Les Celliers de Meknes, produces 30 million bottles a year -- and exports less than a third.
On this particular weeknight, we're sipping sangria and a glass of that Meknes wine and reading the menu our very laid-back server has proffered, along with small rounds of khobz, a puffy flat bread, chermoula butter and a small dish of spiced salt that we end up liberally strewing over everything.
We start with Harira ($4 for a cup, $8 for a bowl), the signature tomato-based North African soup, typically made with an entire cache of spices. It's hearty and comforting, and it packs some heat, but it lacks the zesty oomph we expect -- and it needs salt.
There are other starter options -- a Moroccan fish soup ($5 cup/$10 bowl), local wild king salmon tartar served with a quail egg ($14) and a roasted baby beets salad ($6 for a half serving, $10 for a full) -- but we recall the Moroccan salads with such fondness, we can't resist a Moroccan Salad Trio ($7.50). It arrives with a roasted eggplant and fava bean salad, a tomato-pepper saute and a carrot salad, whose crisp, long strands make it difficult to eat.
We ate variations on this theme across Morocco, where these delightful little vegetable melanges pop up in trios, quintets and once, fabulously, a full dozen little dishes strewn across the table. They're the most fun, complex and palate-pleasing things, with zippy flavors and textural surprises that just didn't materialize here.
It isn't that there is anything wrong with the Doukkala riffs. They're perfectly pleasant. But a little acid would brighten the flavors -- and everything needs salt.
The Mendocino Quail Pastilla entree ($14), on the other hand, is sublime. Phyllo pastry encases quail, Anjou pears, spices and crushed almonds, and the whole affair is dusted with powdered sugar for a sweet-savory punch that delights on every front. The Maple Leaf Duck Tagine ($27) is also very good, a slow-roasted mixture of zucchini, carrots, duck meat and preserved Meyer lemons, a twist on the usual preserved lemon condiment. Oddly, it arrives at the table in a shallow white bowl, topped with a tagine lid. We wonder about the fate of the tagine bottom.
If you prefer non-poultry, there are plenty of other possibilities on the menu, from vegetarian-friendly tagines and couscous to dayboat scallops ($14 for a half serving, $27 for a full), and a number of decidedly Mediterranean dishes, including salmon ($27) with a confit of potatoes and a bouillabaisse jus, and Squid a la Plancha ($11) with chorizo.
We're so very full by now, but the dessert menu is too tempting to resist, what with offerings such as Mango and Green Tea Panna Cotta ($7.50) and a Creme Brulee Trio ($8). So we split an utterly divine house-made baklava ($10.50) and wash it down with Morocco's signature drink, mint tea, the steaming, lightly sweetened beverage pouring from a mint leaf-stuffed teapot.
* * ½
WHERE: 4905 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
CONTACT: 510-653-8691, www.doukkala
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekends
VEGETARIAN: Vegetable tagine and a whole wheat couscous with fava beans and garbanzos ($19 each)
BEVERAGES: West Coast, Moroccan and Lebanese wines; craft beer; mint tea
RESERVATIONS: Available on the website
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Street parking and a usually full parking lot
PLUSES: Fresh ingredients combine with Moroccan flavors and ambience
MINUSES: Parking is difficult in Temescal. Prepare to walk a bit.
DATE OPENED: April
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