**1/2 (2 and 1/2 stars) Taste of Morocco
in City Place Mall, 8661 Colesville Rd.,
Silver Spring. 301-588-4003
Open: daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 3 to 11 p.m. AE, M, V. No smoking. Public parking, free after 8 p.m. weekdays and all day on weekends. Metro: Silver Spring. Prices: dinner appetizers $3.95 to $4.95; dinner entrees $12.95 to $19.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $35 per person.
There are two types of Moroccan restaurants in the Washington area: the everyday North African cafes where the Arab- and Berber-influenced stews, laced with cumin, cinnamon, paprika and saffron, are the principal draw, and the more ornate destination restaurants, where the spicy stews compete for attention with the exotic decor and erotic entertainment.
The owners of Taste of Morocco have two restaurants, one of each sort. In Clarendon, the 10-year-old Taste is more about the kitchen's adept blending of spices. The small dining room is comfortable enough, yet on the threadbare side. But at the new location in redeveloped downtown Silver Spring, the same delicious dishes are presented in a resplendent setting akin to a courtyard in a casbah. Walls are skillfully stenciled in a kaleidoscope of red and blue to mimic patterned tile work. Chairs and banquettes, with plenty of plump pillows, are draped or upholstered in brocaded fabrics. On some nights, a playful belly dancer whirls across the floral-inspired carpet, encouraging customers to join her undulations. It's a fun atmosphere for a date or office dinner party. I'm not sure, though, that it's an appropriate eatery to take young children to after a screening at the nearby Majes-tic 20 or American Film Institute Silver Theatre.
Upon arrival, my dining companions and I are welcomed by a hospitable staff that appears eager to please. When one of my crew mutters, "We're really hungry," the smiling waitress comes close, looks him in the eye and promises: "We can help you with that." And, quickly, she does.
Out come lovely, crinkled, black olives topped with a crushed red chili oil, accompanied by chunks of outstanding, slightly sweet, yeasted flatbread that has the smoke-infused flavor of a wood-burning oven. I've never been a big fan of appetizer sampler platters, which always seem to include at least one deep-fried thing that I don't care for. Still, I can recommend the royal salad, which allows you to try mini-servings of the five salads on the menu. The best two are the creamy hummus and the bright-tasting eggplant with tomato. The others are respectable enough, though not particularly thrilling. But put five of them together and you can scoop up bits of this and that with the fine bread, and combine the subtle flavors.
As for soups, the lentil is a little too strong on the cumin and is watery to boot. But chef Hasan Zirari, a native of Marrakech, makes a first-rate vegetarian version of harrira, Morocco's national soup, that has a far richer broth punctuated by parsley. The traditional, long-handled wooden soup spoons are a little awkward to maneuver but fun nonetheless. The restaurant offers a couple of imported and domestic beers and five pleasant-enough wines by the glass or bottle to have with your meal, though nothing from Morocco. A waiter says that may change soon, with Casablanca brand beer and native wines on the way.
On separate evenings, I try three kinds of bisteeya, a savory pie where the ingredients are encased in a thin, flaky phyllo crust. The classic version -- shredded chicken, onions, eggs and ground almonds, dusted with cinnamon and sugar -- is rich, loaded with moist meat and beautifully presented. Stab it with a knife, and the crust releases a fragrant steam. As delicious as it is, a little of this sweet splendor goes a long way; the serving indicated for two on the menu could easily satisfy four. By contrast, a seafood bisteeya is no treat, the center filled, for the most part, with thin vermicelli, mushrooms, onions, a few little desert-dry shrimp and the odd piece of arid squid. But the third, a vegetarian pie of chickpeas, green peas and winter squash seasoned with cilantro, I would happily order again.
A Moroccan stew, as well as the conical topped vessel that it's sometimes cooked in and always served in, is called a tagine. And this is where this kitchen really shines. Whether you order lamb or chicken, the tender meat falls off the bone, and the seasoning is superb. My favorite might be the chicken tagine with green olives and preserved lemon -- the last a tangy ingredient that gives many Moroccan dishes legs. When the belly dancer asks me to join her for a once around the room, I stay with the chicken. Now that's commitment.
Another terrific tagine of spice-encrusted, moist and meaty red snapper, also with olives and lemon, runs a close second. An appealing accompaniment is a meatless couscous that has seven stewed vegetables. Or order the enormous royal couscous, which comes with chunks of potato, carrot and acorn squash, small spicy sausages, a meaty lamb shank and plenty of stewed chicken. This dish alone would easily feed three. Also worth trying: kefta, a distinctive beef dish of small meatballs and a poached egg in a light, cardamom-flavored tomato sauce, which is served with fluffy saffron rice.
For dessert, there are nice, house-made cookies of ground almond and flour that have been dipped in honey, as well as triangles of nutty baklava. Add a glass of hot mint tea, and take a moment to enjoy the comfortable cushions and dreamy Arab music. The busy streets of Silver Spring seem far away.
Walter Nicholls is a reporter for The Post's Food section. Tom Sietsema is on assignment.