Those in search of examples of a work ethic forged in tungsten steel could look no further than spouses Hassan Ziadi and Samlali Raja.
Three years ago, the couple opened Moroccan Flavors at the Midtown Global Market, introducing lively, expertly prepared tagines and couscous dishes. The counter-service restaurant quickly became a reason to visit and revisit the MGM.
When another hardworking couple, Thomas and Kat Kim, decided to close their restaurant, the much missed Rabbit Hole, Ziadi and Raja decided to take advantage of the vacancy and fulfill their long dream of opening a full-service restaurant. Raja has remained at Moroccan Flavors, and Ziadi is cooking at what they’ve christened Ziadi’s Mediterranean Cuisine.
Graze your way up and down the modest menu, and it’s easy to see that Ziadi is taking full advantage of the opportunity to create a different experience at the 13-year-old market.
The cooking is elegant, yet it remains within the market’s price-conscious confines. (Read about four other great MGM restaurants here.)
A wealth of experiences
What’s clear is that Ziadi is deftly drawing from the wealth of his experience, whether it’s a ritzy hotel (the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C.) or a local, long gone landmark (Aquavit, Cafe Un Deux Trois) or his native Morocco. Diners clearly benefit.
A beautiful ballotine recalls his stint, more than 20 years ago, at the former Basil’s in the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis.
The hotel showcased pheasant, but Ziadi flattens chicken breasts, stuffing them with lobster meat, spinach and a little Parmesan and then rolling it.
Once cooked, the outside boasts a decidedly crispy, almost crunchy coating that contrasts nicely with the tender succulence of the chicken and lobster. Even better, the lobster’s gentle sweetness is echoed in a colorful purée of sweet potatoes.
Like so much of Ziadi’s cooking, it’s lovely to look at and a treat to eat, and it’s a shocker to encounter this level of refinement at the extremely reasonable price of $18, particularly given the generous portions.
For $12, you can enjoy pan-seared chicken that Ziadi transforms with an overnight marinade in lemon, garlic, turmeric and cilantro, the complementary flavors insinuating themselves into the juicy meat. Another $12 deal: sturdy beef meatballs simmered in stewed tomatoes.
A fall-apart tender lamb shank, braised for three hours in a perfume of cardamom, ginger and garlic, can be yours for $16.
Ziadi obviously has a flair for seafood, nurturing thick, juicy scallops in a pan until their surfaces take on caramel undertones but their interiors remain wonderfully firm and luscious. He serves them with a creamy risotto popping with earthy mushrooms, another welcome touch, and prices the whole shebang at $17, a steal.
Siblings, but not twins
Menus at the two restaurants have some overlap, but they’re not carbon copies.
For example, both feature a beef tagine, but at Ziadi’s, the dish is prepared with cashews and dates, while at Moroccan Flavors, the combination is almonds, prunes and figs; the differences don’t sound like much, but the end results are notably different.
“I also try not to compete with myself,” Ziadi said. “We have lots of customers that want lamb shank. At Moroccan Flavors, you eat it with couscous, and at Ziadi’s we serve it with potatoes. We did a little study, and Americans like potatoes more than rice, or couscous.”
If I had a business lunch in the neighborhood, I’d seal the deal at Ziadi’s.
Again, I was struck by the value: An enormous portion of pan-seared chicken, seasoned with hints of preserved lemon and served with ultra-creamy, spinach-laced mashed potatoes, set me back just $11. Another quick-service preparation, this time with salmon and a comfort-minded ratatouille, was $12.
The buildout was primarily a do-it-yourself affair, and it’s charming. The bar — home to some imaginative cocktails, as well as a handful of locally brewed beers and a shortlist of affordable wines — is a snug getaway from the market’s agreeable cacophony, while the airy dining room is awash in the sun-drenched colors of Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier and other Moroccan destinations.
What’s great about the setup is that the kitchen is front and center, a showy stage for the ever-present Ziadi and his one-man cooking show.
Another thoughtful touch: a colorful antipasti buffet, boasting maybe eight or 10 vegetable preparations. (“Every time you come, you see something different,” Ziadi said.) It could include eggplant, peppers, artichokes, cucumbers, olives, cauliflower and beets, each given a simple and appealing preparation. Treat it as a quick, no-nonsense lunch, or as the prelude to dinner.
Open just four months, the restaurant remains a work in progress. Tweaks continue on the service front, and Ziadi and Raja are brainstorming ideas to draw in more customers: perhaps adding a tableside cooking setup during happy hour, or hiring belly dancers a few nights a week, or implementing a changes-daily lunch special.
One of the most exciting prospects has Raja taking advantage of the Salty Tart’s exit from the market. She’s planning to launch a bakery counter at Moroccan Flavors, stocking it with North African pastries, sweets and breads. Look for it to materialize in a few weeks.
“I have lots of ideas in mind, but I’m taking baby steps,” Ziadi said. “It’s like hunting. You see too many birds, and when you try to catch them all, you end up with none of them.”