Newly opened Moltaqa offers Moroccan escape in Vancouver's Gastown

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      Before you even step into the world that is Moltaqa on West Hastings Street, you smell it: ginger, cumin, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise… Walk in and you’re in Marrakesh: mosaic tilework, decorative archways, red-and-gold textiles, and lanterns that cast intricate patterns of light on the white walls and ceiling.

      On the counters are crystal glasses, silver teapots, and—in shades of green, blue, orange, and red—what form the centrepiece of the menu: tagines, cooking pots with conical lids that typically contain a blend of spicy and sweet flavours.

      This new Moroccan restaurant comes to Vancouver from Mimo Bucko. The Slovakian native, whose father is a restaurateur, has lived and worked around the world, including cities in Europe and the United States. Dubai is where he met his Marrakesh-born girlfriend. Upon visiting her homeland, he found himself mesmerized by its culture, predominantly Arab-Berber with strong French and Spanish influences.

      “Morocco is the gateway to Africa, and culture, music, food, and spices all go hand in hand,” Bucko says in an interview at Moltaqa, whose name means “meeting place” in Arabic. “When you walk down the streets in Marrakesh, there are places with tall walls where you can’t tell from the outside but inside are these peaceful, mesmerizing, beautiful spaces; it’s like a fairy tale to me. I want people to come in here and think, ‘Wow, I’m in a different world, a different culture. I had paradise for an hour.’

      “The theme of my design is reflection of light: you can be the light or you can be the shadow. Life is about reflection; everything you put out comes back.”

      The experience at Moltaqa runs the gamut from lunch and weekend brunch to dinner, complete with belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. Bucko has put together a team of Moroccan-born chefs and culinary consultants, including chef Marouane Anharro, who is from Fez; two others are from Casablanca.

      The star of Moltaqa's menu are the tagines, cooking pots with conical lids that typically contain a blend of spicy and sweet flavours.
      Gail Johnson

      Having lived in Vancouver for the past several years, the 36-year-old Bucko has adopted its health-conscious lifestyle, so the menu highlights dishes that are wholesome and light on oil. Moltaqa only serves halal and hormone-free meats, while produce, which is organic as often as possible, comes from Chinatown, Granville Island, and farms in the Fraser Valley. A Moroccan baker makes khobz bread, the round, semiflattened loaves light and fluffy. (He also makes a delicate orange cheesecake.)

      Served with that traditional bread and Algerian pitted dates on the side, a hearty vegan soup called loubia—with stewed white beans, ripe tomatoes, and cilantro—could be a light lunch in itself. Fresh arugula and finely chopped green apple tossed with a pomegranate dressing make for a bright starter, while preserved lemon, cumin, and olive oil dress a blend of zucchini and parsley. Other appetizers include locally made lamb merguez sausages and zaalouk, a soothingly toothsome roasted-eggplant dip with preserved lemons, red pepper, and tomatoes.

      Available at lunch or dinner, tagine menu items are as delectable as the dishes are visually striking, with servers removing the lids at the table as wafts of steam rise up and fragrant aromas spill forth.

      Traditionally, the pots were made of earthenware and placed over a charcoal fire to cook. Now most chefs and home cooks use dishes made of metal or glazed ceramics (and place them in the oven or on stovetops). The cone-shaped lid allows steam to circulate during cooking, creating condensation that helps keep food moist.

      At Moltaqa, preserved lemons add a layer of depth to chicken, served with piquant green olives, fork-tender eggplant, carrots, and potatoes. Chermoula sauce—a traditional condiment made here with lemon juice, ginger, coriander, allspice, and olive oil—accompanies steelhead trout, “ruby” trout, or sea bream for a coastal tagine. Then there is the lamb shoulder, which comes with ras el hanout. The name of this prized mixture of ground spices and dried roots and leaves—which changes from person to person and place to place—means “head of the shop” in Arabic, referring to the best spices of the shop. Moltaqa’s version consists of 32 spices, including turmeric, coriander, cumin, and ginger. (“You have to be an expert to mix 32 spices together and not have one overpowering the other,” Bucko says.)

      To drink: traditional Moroccan tea, mint or hibiscus; a citrusy Raincoast kombucha on tap made with turmeric and mint; beer on tap and by the bottle (including local and gluten-free selections); and wines from B.C., Italy, France, and Spain (including some vegan and organic pours, such as Summerhill Merlot and Pinot Gris). Moroccan-inspired cocktails are deliciously inventive: Karkade Hibiscus Passion mixes vodka with hibiscus tea and grenadine; the Preserved Lemondrop Martini blends Ketel One Citroen with triple sec, preserved lemon, and made-in-Squamish maple syrup.

      Food prices range from $6.25 to $25. If there’s a Marrakesh Express, all aboard this train.

      Places to go nearby

      Approx. 15 minutes away

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