For Nikki’s birthday this year, we kept it mellow, but classy. Michael, Nikki’s boyfriend, and I decided on Kous Kous, a Moroccan restaurant for the evening’s affair. It’s easy to miss the restaurant if you are not totally sure where you are going, as it’s tucked down some stairs coming off 4th Avenue’s sidewalk. Standing outside, you might think it’s modern or crisp, but when you walk in the doors, the place transforms into a beautiful Moroccan palace (or at least what we would assume one to be, in restaurant form, of course). There are curtains lending privacy to small groups, candles and lanterns, padded benches, elaborate fabrics, and deeply saturated tones. Of course, the tables are covered in brown paper. That kind of takes away the palace feel, but the lights are dim enough that you almost don’t notice. There’s also a seemingly out of place television adorning one wall, and it’s kind of noisy, in a good, everyone’s enjoying themselves kind of way. Maybe it’s more like the neighborhood bar, located in the Moroccan palace. Regardless, the aroma that hits you walking through the door practically guarantees delicious food. Nikki announced, “Reminds me of Turkey,” where she vacationed late last year. “That was the idea.” (And yes, we know those two countries aren’t exactly next door to one another, but still).
Our reservation ran a little late, but it was okay, because we were a little late ourselves. We were escorted to a back table, which was partitioned off with two other tables, making it feel like we really did have our own little space. Once we were seated, our waiter, Kevin, who was not Moroccan, gave us some detailed information about the menu items and left us to decide what to eat. We looked over the entrées and family-style dishes trying to decide. I suggested entrées, since Nikki and Michael are not vegetarians, and I wanted to make sure everyone enjoyed their food, but both of them were fine going vegetarian for the night, so we had a more complete experience ordering “Moroccan Feast 1,” adjusting it to be vegetarian. Special note: almost everything can be adjusted vegan as well (a lot of the vegetarian food is already there) without any problems. Just order it that way.
Our meal came in courses (palace), and in a very not-so-USA kind of way, we were given plenty of time to chat and kick back and enjoy ourselves. Like four hours worth of time…so do not come here if you need to get in and out. We all get along swimmingly and can talk endlessly, plus we were celebrating, so it was cool with us, but, you know, just for reference (although, it likely doesn’t always take quite that long, but do give yourselves at least a couple hours). Also, while separated from the entire restaurant, you are in snug quarters with those in your little space, so expect to be okay with and even befriend the couple making out excessively (my way of keeping the blog kid friendly) right in your peripheral vision…or direct vision (poor Michael) or the self-described “artistic” and “organic” couple who speak with lofty hand gestures, almost in a foreign accent (despite not being foreign) and bring their sleeping six-year-old to enjoy late night dining…while sleeping… Honestly, though, the weirdness of it all – it’s kind of part of the experience. We had a blast and enjoyed the entertainment of our diverse neighbors.
Back to the food, right? I could quickly become completely obsessed with it. It. Was. Delicious. All of it. We started with dressed and seasoned carrots, which came with a spicy tomato-based compote or relish or I don’t know what to call it except for fantastic. The carrots reminded me of Mexican hot carrots, which I love. Soft, but still with a crunch at the core and well coated in their sauce, the sweet carrots married well with the zesty and savory sauce.
We moved onto pita, served with a chopped tomato and cucumber salsa, which was tossed in lemon juice, cumin, extra-virgin olive oil, and feta. We’re bread people around here, and I consume cucumbers and tomatoes on a daily basis, so this was a hit.
We were brought sides of cous cous, which was the only thing not vegetarian (cooked in chicken stock), and saffron rice. We ate these with a vegetable tagine, made up of slow roasted carrots, green beens, Kalamata olives, and garbanzo beans in a tomato, paprika, and ginger marinade. It was wonderful. I could eat loads of it. I told Nikki and Michael that I once met a Moroccan man through an international penpal site (that sounds like a good idea, right?) who, in every correspondence, would invite me over to have tagine with him for lunch. Moroccan, as in in Morocco. I kept trying to remind him that I live in San Diego and can’t exactly skip over for lunch, but somehow it never rang as a reality.
We were soon presented with another main course – stuffed tomatoes and peppers. Roasted in a Moroccan tomato sauce to enhance their flavors, the edible containers were filled with sweet corn, rice, and green beans. They were surprisingly easy to split without making a huge mess, and just as everything else, they were fantastically delectable (and I don’t actually always like stuffed tomatoes and peppers).
So, this was a lot of food, but we ate it over such a long period of time that it didn’t bring on that stuffed feel. Besides, we didn’t eat it all – we sampled everything and had left overs. Just when we thought we were finished, Kevin brought out a fruit medley of oranges and strawberries, garnished with mint leaves. We tasted it and tried to guess what spice was added. I’m guessing cinnamon. More goodness, and a perfectly light, yet still special, way to end the meal.
Set aside some time. Plan an evening around food, and go here. It’s quirky and exotic, and the food really is pretty spectacular and definitely different from what you’re going to get somewhere else. This place is not necessarily cheap, but it’s not outrageous either. This feast option cost $24 per person, and that included everything, food-wise. This is an excellent place for vegetarians and vegans, and it is an especially great place if you are eating with a group of people with different dietary needs. I’ll definitely be back. Kous Kous is located in Hillcrest at 3940 4th Avenue, Suite 1100. It’s between University and Washington. Kous Kous is open Sunday through Thursday between 5pm and 11pm and Friday and Saturday from 4pm to 11 pm (although we were there until well after 12).