Published 21 July 2002 Style Magazine 471st article
Michael Winner with Saida Chaab and the Al Fassia waitresses (Georgina Hristova)
Mohammed Chaab is very large. Robert Berge is very small. They seldom stand next to each other. M Berge is the director-general of the hotel La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco. Mr Chaab is the deputy manager. La Mamounia has extraordinarily good eclairs at the poolside restaurant. The lamb, steamed for seven hours, served in their Moroccan restaurant, is historic. I've nodded to Kofi Annan, Lord Carrington and Charlotte Rampling and sat with Yves Saint Laurent at La Mamounia. Yves lives in Marrakesh and his gardens are open to the public. But I want to tell you about Al Fassia, a restaurant owned by Mohammed Chaab and run by his daughter, Saida.
With Marrakesh becoming a disturbingly popular tourist destination, the old Arab houses in the souk are being turned into bed-and-breakfast places, or bought by Europeans. But, for now, it's still a marvellous place. Al Fassia is not a typical tourist restaurant. For a start, it doesn't offer a set menu as most of the touristy places do. The best of these used to be Yacout, but that's been modernised. The food is well down from the standard it used to be. Le Tobsil, run by a devoted French lady, Christine Rio, is now the best and most beautiful restaurant in Marrakesh. Al Fassia could not be described as beautiful. It's on a main road in a modern building. But once you get inside, it has a warm, mercifully unpretentious atmosphere. Willy de Bruyn, the only amusing Belgian in the world, who operates the casino at La Mamounia, first told me about Al Fassia. I respect his views. There are some rather bright pictures of Fez, a fantastic Moroccan town - real name, Al Fassia. Remarkably for Morocco, the service is by women. They are in traditional dress. The food is extraordinarily good. I totally recommend it.
With no set menu, you can order what you like without sitting through endless courses that are often nice. but always too much. We started with a typical Moroccan soup, harira. This is tomato with lentils, chickpeas, celery, coriander, rice and chopped lamb. It's delicious. Then we had a lamb shoulder for two with a sauce of onions and almonds on top and plain rice. Saida suggested Moroccan Medaillon Cabernet 1997, a soft wine, not great but very drinkable. Georgina said: "This lamb is so good, I can't stop eating it. Lamb is no good to be grilled, they shouldn't put it on the menu if they can't do it properly." By that, she meant steamed. She said the wine went very well with the dinner. "Lamb is always good with wine," she added. Since Georgina never drinks wine, and you have to force her to sip a Chateau Latour 1961, I found that a bit odd. But she's a great girl.
The benches are very uncomfortable unless you lie back and stick your stomach out. Georgina said: "You very big fat people slide. I'm not sliding." I moved to one of the tiny, upright chairs. It was close as to which was the most uncomfortable. On other visits to Al Fassia, I had excellent chicken with olives and lemons and Georgina had chicken, caramelised onions and couscous. For dessert, Saida does amazing Moroccan pancakes with melted honey and butter. They've got little craters in them so they're not at all chewy, just very light and tasty. Among the best pancakes I've ever eaten. Mohammed Chaab's brother, Mostatha (odd spelling, but that's what Mohammed told me), has a Moroccan restaurant called Al Fassia in Windsor. If you've been there, tell me about it.
Also in Marrakesh, they sell masses of fake luxury goods - handbags and luggage, you know the sort of items. A marchioness told me she did all her buying there and none of her friends knew they weren't the real thing. In the souk, you can get sellers down to one-third of their asking price if you persist. Beware of so-called "antiques". Most of them are fake. There's a wonderful phrase they use when you ask: "Is this modern?" They say: "Made about 50 years ago." Marrakesh was apparently amazingly active circa 1950 with artisans making silver scent bottles, silver and gold camels, mirrors decorated with semi-rare stones, and so on. The guides all get commission from the shops they take you to. One broke ranks and led me to a local wholesaler offering "50-year-old" items. All made last week. He let me have them well below the lowest souk prices. There, they also do marvellously embroidered slippers for £4 a pair. I've seen the same in London for £50. It's pathetic, really, how much we all love a bargain.
Being a follower of Michael Winner's column, it was with delight that I landed in Portofino (via a cruise liner). We had lunch at the Hotel Splendido, and what an excellent lunch it turned out to be: delicious parma ham, superb catch of the day, and summer fruits with mixed sorbet, all washed down with a bottle of the local wine. Thank you for the recommendation - and sorry about the mode of transport.
John Gardner, Cardross, Scotland
Following Michael's recent commentary on La Roseraie, Morocco (June 9), and your correspondent Judith Howard's subsequent "amazement" at his observations, I can hold myself back no longer. This is simply one of the worst hotels we have ever visited. Our room was small and grubby, with all the charm of a prison cell. The food was appalling (a lamb dish comprising a 6in bone and a pile of charred skin comes to mind) and the service charmless and clueless. This is a truly awful place, made even worse by the fact that our previous stop had been the fabulous Gazelle d'Or in Taroudannt.
Helen Kellett, by e-mail
Please note that bakewell tarts (June 16) are a confection obtainable in most supermarkets, while bakewell puddings are the most mouthwateringly delicious joy, obtainable only in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.
George Webb, by e-mail
If Michael wants to partake of the smallest main course in British culinary history, he should visit the Old Bell at Malmesbury. Our dish one Saturday consisted of three mouthfuls. My wife and friends could not decide whether to laugh or cry.
Joseph Bell, by e-mail
My wife and I were lunching at La Jetee in Juan-Les-Pins in the south of France when a parasol fell onto our table, knocking the remainder of an excellent bottle of red, plus two full glasses, into our food and onto our clothes. The waiter cleared and redressed the table, but we waited in vain for an apology. When we made to leave, we were presented with a bill for our ruined meal. When I refused to pay, the management were rude in French, a language I speak fluently. Obviously, in some restaurants, profit comes before client relations. By the way, my grandfather was a "beigel" baker; a bagel is a different item entirely.
Tony Fox, by e-mail
Send letters to Style; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org