Restaurant Review: Mazagan
At trendy Mazagan, the best dishes take time.
Score a window seat at Mazagan and you may notice a few curious eyes checking out what’s on your plate. Passersby can’t help but stop and gaze inside this newcomer to Columbia Pike, where the deep-blue-and-white color scheme evokes the sun-drenched coast of North Africa, and dark wood accents, paired with moody lighting and Moorish window treatments, set a sophisticated tone. Named for a historic port city outside of Casablanca, Mazagan is located on a busy corner in a spot that previously housed an electronics shop. It opened in May.
A mural of Gnawa musicians—known for mixing traditional Moroccan spiritual music with contemporary beats—serves as the backdrop behind the busy bar, where many of the cocktails feature Middle Eastern flavors such as preserved lemon and saffron.
I’m partial to the “Rose-Marry Me,” which mixes rosemary, cucumber and rose water with gin and fresh lemon. Also worth a look are the roughly 20 wines that are available by the glass, including a pair of reds from Château Kefraya, a vineyard located in Lebanon’s verdant Bekaa Valley (though the one I tried on my first visit was unavailable on my next trip, so be sure to inquire if the label is back in stock).
The kitchen can be hit or miss. Thick fries are good for dipping into cold mezza such as zaâlouk with smoky eggplant and tomatoes, or garlic-and-tahini-rich moutabal, which is similar to baba ghanoush. Several dishes are accompanied by charmoula, a sauce of green herbs, lemon and garlic—Morocco’s chimichurri. This flavorful condiment does double-duty, also serving as a marinade for the gratis Moroccan and Spanish olives that arrive at the table when you sit down.
Many of the warm mezza proved disappointing, including the shrimp pill pill, which featured mealy, flavorless crustaceans; and the grilled octopus, which was charred, but mushy. The quail egg with oily beef sausage slices is another one to skip.
A selection of phyllo-wrapped cigars, stuffed with meat, vegetables and seafood, were, at times, perfectly crisp, while at other times marred by cold fillings and greasy exteriors. But the savory-sweet bastilla—a compact, puffed disc, dusted in cinnamon and powdered sugar and bursting with egg, ground almond and chicken spiced with nutmeg—starred on several visits.
The tagines, whose signature clay vessels crowd the wood-fired grill in the open kitchen, require patience on the part of guests, as well as from the cooks. The staff begins preparing these aromatic, herb-marinated stews—the daily offerings include several meat options and one special—in the early afternoon. Each dish then takes an additional 25 minutes to finish on the oak-charcoal grill once it’s been ordered.
But trust me, it’s worth waiting for fragrant combinations such as the tender chicken and olives, or lamb with dried dates and apricots. The thick, yeasty bread that comes alongside each tagine serves as a perfect mop.
I can recommend the couscous as a side dish (it’s much better than the bland saffron rice or the under-seasoned spinach), though it doesn’t fare well as an entrée when topped with giant chunks of overcooked carrots, potatoes and zucchini.
Aside from the tagines, Chicken M’kelli, a dish of braised bird, brightened with saffron, olives and a zing of preserved lemon, is Mazagan’s superior large plate.
In addition, the kabobs—which come in more than a dozen options, from vegetables to lamb chops to offal—are worth exploring. Meats are marinated for 24 hours before hitting the grill, while seafood gets a shorter turn in an olive oil and paprika bath. The saffron chicken, tuna and kefta (ground meat with spices) are standouts.
“The attention for [kabobs] like [calf] liver and [beef] heart, which are things Moroccans would normally eat but not a lot of people love [here], has been surprising,” says chef-owner Riyad Bouizar. A native Moroccan, he lived on Columbia Pike when he first moved to Virginia in 1988, though he now lives in Springfield.
From Sunday to midweek, Mazagan is a fine choice for a group dinner, first date or family (though, heads-up to parents of wee ones: there is no diaper-changing table in the restroom). As the weekend nears, the vibe turns clubbier and hours extend into late night for the hookah enthusiasts who come to enjoy the fruit-imbued tobacco selection in the glass-enclosed, smoke-ventilated lounge.
At press time, Bouizar was planning to introduce a lunch menu.
Overall, the service was friendly, but uneven. Checks and plates were often slow, even when the dining room was half full and plenty of staff were on hand. On three separate occasions, members of my table placed their orders only to be told later that the dishes they had chosen were sold out. (The management might do well to ramp up the communication between kitchen and waitstaff, and turn down the global beats; it was often hard to hear the person sitting directly across the table, even on weeknights.)
When offered the option of dessert, don’t hesitate to order the tiramisu. Bouizar also owns the Venetian-themed Ristorante Murali in Pentagon Row, and for five years oversaw Sweet Surrender Bakery in the same neighborhood, so he knows his sweets. A fluffy strawberry-pistachio cake is moist and large enough to share, and the daily offering of baklava features almond-heavy layers of crunchy phyllo glazed with fragrant orange blossom syrup instead of honey. Divine.
Though mint tea is often a traditional end to a Moroccan meal, I’d suggest giving it a pass here (it looked and smelled too swampy for my taste). Luckily the Venetian, a creamy espresso cocktail shaken with vanilla vodka, Amaretto, Baileys and Godiva Liqueur, can be made with decaf. And there’s always hookah after 9 p.m., if you’re not quite ready for the night to end.
2901 Columbia Pike, Arlington, 703-566-4173, www.mazaganrestaurant.com
Dinner and late night: Monday to Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. to midnight; Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Appetizers, salads and soups
$4-$11; entrées, burgers and
tagines $11-$25; kabobs $11-$24; desserts $7-$10.
BAR AND CELLAR
About 20 wines by the glass and bottle. Limited beers on draft and in bottles. Full bar with specialty cocktails.
Monday to Saturday after 9 p.m
Metered street parking (free after 6 p.m.). There’s also a public parking lot across the street.