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Keep on Moroccan

Pull up a cushion at Menara Moroccan Restaurant and feast on tradition

By Garry Forbes

SURE, IT'S a dining gewgaw, not likely to become your regular haunt unless you have a serious belly-dancing fetish or you've never gotten past those early memories of sticking your fingers in a warm bowl of anything. But on those days when your gang is hit with a collective pang for something exotic, or when the finicky office geek's birthday comes up and you want to rock his world, or when you're certain you're at that food-sharing point in your relationship, it's time to head to Menara Moroccan Restaurant.

The Menara goes way back. It opened in 1977, the same year Jobs and Wozniak started Apple. It has made it through the valley's many booms and busts, withstood the Loma Prieta quake and hosted many a party in which some of the valley's most dignified movers and shakers proved that just because you're rich doesn't mean you can dance.

The secret of the Menara's longevity is its constancy. No specials, no surprises. Staff and dancers and wine selections may come and go, but in this valley of perpetual change, the Menara is an oasis of certainty in terms of ambience and food. That works out well for veteran customers. The details of your inaugural visit to Menara will stick in your memory for many years, wedged in that "stuff I know I can use one day" part of your brain. And when the return visit happens--and it will--you can, en route, extract your carefully preserved data and dole it out like candy to your carload of wide-eyed newbies.

"My favorite part of the meal," you can say, "is b'stilla. I usually don't care for pigeon pie, but this place does it just right." Someone might try to jump out of the car at that point, but most will just flinch and keep quiet, thinking they can just avoid that particular adventure. (Of course, the Menara recipe, like those at most other Moroccan places outside of Morocco, uses chicken instead of pigeon, but you can let the server explain that later.)

You can impart to the initiates how they'll be sitting on cushions around a low table, and how the server will perform a mint tea ritual, pouring the beverage into glasses from high above without scalding a single guest, and how they should eat with only their thumb and first two fingers, and how, at beginning and end, the server brings a big bowl and pours warm, scented water over everyone's hands.

And of course you already know enough to choose your seat first. If you're the easily embarrassed type and you know full well that you dance like a chimp on a field of hot coals, you can jam yourself into a position where the belly dancer isn't likely to single you out. Conversely, if being the focus of attention is your raison d'être, you'll choose an outside spot and attract the dancer's invitation by swaying nonstop to the enchanting North African tunes that fill the main and side dining areas.

The vibrant colors of the spacious main room, decorated with ceiling and wall fabrics and stained-glass lamps that cast shadows on the walls and through the elaborate portals into the side rooms, seem to become even more vibrant after a glass or two of Moroccan Magic, the popular starter drink of juices, brandy and rum.

Service, from the hostess who greets you near the tiled fountain near the entrance--which unfolds into a vast bar and lounge area--to the traditionally clad, fez-topped servers, is another Menara constant: Always gracious and prompt, the servers explain each course in detail.

The Menara offers five complete dinners, from the popular Le Diner Menara ($24.95 per person) through the Le Diner Fantasy ($31.95 per person). There's also a vegetarian offering ($20.95), a Casablanca dinner featuring orange roughy ($27.95) and a Rabati dinner featuring a rabbit tangine. Everyone shares the same dishes and the same huge basket of fresh bread used to scoop up the salad morocaine and other sensational dishes. Wine offerings include choice Napa Valley vintages, as well as some fine French labels and tasty Moroccan reds.

A gewgaw, yes. But a treasure of a gewgaw that holds a special place in the memories of all who have visited.

Menara Moroccan Restaurant
Address: 41 E. Gish Rd., San Jose
Phone: 408.453.1983
Hours: 6-10pm daily

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From the March 24-31, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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