With a little imagination, you could almost forget that the building where Atlas Mediterranean Cuisine opened in February was once a Pizza Hut. Gauzy curtains soften the edges of the distinctive trapezoidal windows, conspiring with tasseled bands of tapestry for a look suggestive of a Bedouin tent. Other cues - potted palms, a Moorish colored glass lantern, a hookah, a ceiling painted with silvery vines and curlicues on a background dark as a desert sky at night - reinforce the illusion.
OK, maybe the gigantic sculptures of a knife, a fork and a spoon are a little out of place. But for an ethnic eatery decorated on a shoestring budget, Atlas is more successful than most at setting a mood - one you might even call exotically romantic - to transport you to the homeland of the food that is its specialty.
In this case, the specialty is the native Moroccan cuisine of owners Said Bouleqcha and his wife, Fatima Analaoui.
The couple share cooking duties, offering a deceptively brief menu that takes you on a tour of the northern African country's best-known dishes with an occasional foray into less familiar territory. Even then, the itinerary shouldn't pose a problem for the most timid of palates.
Maakouda, pan-fried potato cakes subtly perfumed with turmeric and cumin, accompanied by a spicy harissa dipping sauce, get the adventure off to a start that's at once exotic and comforting. So does smooth, paprika-dusted hummus served with soft, warm pita wedges. A Moroccan composed salad of beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and a creamy potato salad wouldn't raise an eyebrow at an American picnic.
The name is the only thing remotely intimidating about zaalouk, a refreshing salad of chopped cooked eggplant, tomato, green peppers and garlic, lightly dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. And if you've never had the classic Moroccan salad of orange slices, diced red onion and black olives, you owe it to yourself to give it a try.
Kebabs, marinated in Moroccan spices before being grilled to order over gas flames, headline the entree offering. Lamb kebabs were lean, reasonably tender and flavorful when I ordered them, but kefta kebabs - made here with a blend of ground beef and lamb - could have benefited from more seasoning. The mixed grill serves up a combination of lamb, chicken, kefta, shrimp and spicy Merguez sausage kebabs. Served with your choice of two sides (I'm partial to the couscous salad, and fries are deservedly popular), it's a generous meal for two and a bargain at $19.99.
For my money, though, the lamb chops (which, for some reason, are listed on the menu as "Lamb Steak") are the way to go - that is, if you don't plan on sharing. And trust me, you won't want to share. You'll have all three bones gnawed clean before anyone else at the table gets any ideas.
Rounding out the entree offering is a handful of vegetarian dishes and non-grill items such as the signature Atlas Dish (chicken or lamb simmered in a sauce of tomato, onion and green peppers) and angel hair pasta with the distinctly Moroccan combination of roasted almonds, cinnamon and sugar.
If fortune smiles on you, that combination will also be showcased in a nightly special, where almonds, cinnamon and sugar play sweet counterpoint to the savory notes in Fatima Analaoui's rendition of the the famous phyllo-crusted Moroccan dish, chicken pastilla.
On another night, a lamb tagine chockablock with whole figs might explore the Moroccan penchant for sweet-savory pairings from a different angle. I can recommend the tagine with the qualification that the lamb might be too fatty for some. But I have no reservations about recommending another special: a seafood pastilla that skips the sweet notes entirely and instead delivers bits of tilapia, shrimp and saffron-scented rice noodles under the phyllo dome.
No amount of cinnamon and sugar or figs in your entree should prevent you from ordering dessert. Get the house-made briwat, crisp triangles of phyllo pastry filled with a paste of ground almonds, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. Order Moroccan mint tea to go with the briwat, and your adventure in a world that's simultaneously exotic and comforting comes full circle.