The Sultan’s Tent Restaurant, Toronto, Canada

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When I was a five years old I was handed some postcards collected by my grandfather in North Africa during World War 11. They were created from an orientalist standpoint especially for the western market and I loved them. Taking elements of what we expected the exotic Arab culture to be like they condensed them into scenes full of men smoking pipes whilst lazing about on large cushions, surrounded by dark-skinned beauties and sheltered by large, ornate tents, palms trees and the desert.

As a very young boy growing up in an all-white, cold, working class part of England I was transfixed; how I wanted to be in this world of flowing, breezy drapes, angled light filtered through hazy, fragrant shisha smoke, exotic dancing girls and soft, warm living! As the years fell away I saw that the west insisted in calling the feeling of this made up world decadent, although I knew that was wrong; this was all about appreciating the gentle reality of what life can be if you’re not too busy chasing the buck, wise enough to let romance into your heart and brave enough to find a way to expose yourself to what Paul Bowles would call ‘the baptism of solitude’.

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In my daydreams I chased after the world those postcards portrayed and when I was 18 I found myself sitting on my rucksack at the base of the Pyramids of Giza; it was the start of a love-affair journey that has since taken me all over Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia and Morocco. It’s an adventure without end for the goal is a feeling rather than a set destination yet still, I hadn’t expected to resume the journey quite so fully here in wintry Canada, far from the quieting, warm and ancient influence of the desert. But Toronto offers a million looking-glass windows into far away worlds, mostly through it’s independently run restaurants, so we weren’t exactly surprised when we saw the Sultan’s Tent website, appearing like a flash version of 1001 Nights, beckoning us to head on over for a taste of the French-Moroccan Orient…

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We bustled in from a cold Front Street early on a snowy March evening. The carpet hanging on the wall opposite the bar, to the right of the front door, is a gift from the King of Morocco, the sign says. It’s bright red and the type of carpet that your money probably can’t buy; some objects can only be fashioned using a passion that puts little store in any currency save honour. Of course, that interpretation might just be in my overly romantic view of the matter…

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The carpet eases your mind open as your eyes adjust to the interior and gets you ready for the sensory experience that is waiting within the Sultan’s Tent. Your table is yours for the evening – there’s just one sitting per night here – and during that time your taste buds and sense of smell are going to get the sort of work out they’re made for as each of your four courses arrives, as will your fingers (the filigree work on the teapot, for example, is divine to the touch) and also your ears and eyes (the belly dancing show and the pouring of tea from a great height, wow, more about all that later…).

The restaurant is divided into eight semi-private ‘tents’ with the aid of multi-coloured drapes; some heavy and luxurious, others sheer and seemingly of the wind. The three of us (myself, Lamia and Ksenia) settled into our open sided tent (there were four tables in each tent) and sunk back into the cushions.

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Like nearly every feature in the Sultan’s Tent, and indeed in my grandfathers postcards, the seating was a result of somebody taking certain desirable elements out of the North African environment and presenting them in a way that’s accessible to us in the west. So, in this instance we sat on heavily padded regular chairs and bench seating (rather than the floor, as it would be in a real Bedu tent), scattered with deep-pile cushions, a mix that presented an amiable mix of relaxed, intimate lounging and upright table seating.

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The table water was actually Q Water, specially designed for the hospitality industry. It’s water filtered on the premises so the restaurant can serve spring-quality water without having to buy bottled water and waste all those plastic bottles to have it transported. So far, the Q website says, restaurants using their filter have saved the use of a total of 49 million plastic bottles. We like that the Sultan’s Tent supports such an initiative. Waste plastic is one of the issues that’s killing our wildlife and polluting our seas, the more we can do to prevent this, the better. Discover more about Q Water at www.qwater.ca

For drinks Ksenia started with Lemontini.

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“It tastes like caramalised candy,” she said. “There isn’t a strong alcohol taste, which I like, and the presentation is simple. Strong lime flavour, not sour, I think it’s super tasty.

I had the Fez Royale. It was a slightly sparkling white wine mixed with pomegranate, a refreshing drink to start, served in a champagne flute.

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Lamia had a Mango Marrakech.

“It tastes very decadent, with its crème de banana, peach schnapps and pithy mango pulp, very homelike in a way and with each taste discernible. It doesn’t seem alcoholic, the sign of a good cocktail, and the mango is fresh, or as fresh as it can be in the midst of winter.”

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For starters the girls had the Harira, a tomato based broth with chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils and Moroccan spices.

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“It’s served lukewarm,” said Ksenia, “and it’s similar to a thin chilly with its beans. Tastes healthy with little salt, no visible oil and a well cooked, soft texture. It’s medium spiced and the lime adds a welcoming zest.”

Lamia said “It’s similar to Halim, a Bengali lentil dish, so if anybody is used to that sort of dish this would be familiar to them. I love the mix of beans and tomato, delicious.”

I had a Tent Green Salad which contained baby lettuce dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette, fresh fine cut vegetables and cherry tomatoes. The minimal dressing allowed the flavour of leaves to come through. It seemed very fresh with a generous mix of soft and crunchy leaves.

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For drinks we asked what would best suit our very meat based main meals and Chris, our waiter, suggested a bottle of Clancys Shiraz Merlot Cabernet. It’s a strong wine at 14.5% and later I found it perfectly paired my Couscous Royale, a mix of beef, chicken and sausage. 

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For the second of our 4 courses I had the B’stilla, a savory and sweet Moroccan pastry with chicken, eggs, almonds, onions, and saffron, sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon.

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If you could take the earthy, knowing, perhaps ancient atmosphere of southern Morocco and condense it into a dish, this is it.  It was simple, tender and delicious with a lingering, evenly spiced taste. I’ve had a lot of B’stilla in Morocco and this wasn’t a bad effort, perhaps a touch over sweet and with too much cinnamon on top, but Lamia tried it and loved it, it was her favourite dish of the evening.

Lamia had the Maftoul, which were hand rolled Moroccan cigar pastries filled with mildly spiced beef and raisins and topped with chipotle aioli.

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Lamia said “The meat is strongly flavoured, which is appropriate in this instance but because I didn’t know this dish and I’m not used to eating pastry covered foods I didn’t realise that just because the outside is almost cold that the inside wouldn’t be very hot, so I’ve burnt my tongue a little! I think the chipotle topping should stand out more; the pastry is superb though and it’s a satisfactory side dish.”

Being from England I have no idea what chipotle is meant to taste like but I really enjoyed the pastry and filling. I must say that I thought the topping tasted a little like melted kraft cheese, and this isn’t a good thing. You’d never have this in Morocco, never, and not only that, it brought the taste level down from excellent to just ok.

Ksenia had the Moroccan Crab Cake which was crab, mixed spices, sweet peppers and toasted bread crumbs served with cilantro aoli and roasted red pepper harissa.

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“It’s a light cake, there’s not a strong fishy taste and the breaded outer is lightly crunchy. The harissa is divine, it’s a very delicate dish.” I had a taste of this and I really enjoyed it, although it is very different to the style of crab cake we’d consider good in England. Back home we make sure they are almost all crab meat with hardly anything else in them, like we’re desperate to get our money’s worth of meat and equally desperate not to hide any taste with added spice, whilst with this version it’s much more relaxed. Both have their merits but this suited the Sultan’s Tent environment better and made for a touch of lightness before the main meal arrived.

A word about the dishes; they’re presented so that they’re easily shared so this is nice if there’s a few of you and you want to sample a bit of everything. They’re also relatively small portions by general Canadian standards but before considering this a negative I think it’s wise to understand that this suits the multi-meal format perfectly and ensures you’re not left feeling too bloated for dessert (or to enjoy a touch of belly dancing if you wish…)

For main Lamia had the Rack of Lamb, grilled to order, topped with a honey glaze, candied ginger confit and Herbs de Provence and served with Yukon gold garlic mash and seasonal vegetables.

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“The first taste I get is one of sweetness,” she said, “it’s cooked how I like it, with the meat well spiced, tender and easy to eat and the few crispy burnt bits are delicious. The Yukon mash has a sweet grainy texture and the baked vegetables add taste but also a lovely splash of colour.” It was both the girls’ favourite main dish.

Ksenia had the Moroccan Beef Short Rib braised with Moroccan spices, in a tagine sauce and served with Yukon gold garlic mash and seasonal vegetables.

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“This is tender, succulent, fall off the bone meat, I barely need a knife. There’s a powerful beef flavour and the meat is extremely juicy. It tastes solely of meat, you know what I mean by that? The act of cooking hasn’t diluted the taste, as it so often does. If you’re not a real meat lover it may be too strong but I’m enjoying it. The mash is more of a neutral taste so it acts as a carb-filler as well as offering the meat a chance to shine.”

I had the Couscous Royale, which was grilled beef kebob, two merguez sausages and a tagine chicken Marrakesh served over couscous with seasonal vegetables.

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The chicken outer carried a medium spice (I think I picked up a hint of cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, pepper and parsley here, all very subtle though) and a regular, tender inside. It didn’t seem much to do with a tagine in the true sense of the word but it was tasty all the same. The beef was nicely grilled but the merguez sausage was my favourite meat item. Served as you’d expect – dry and very meaty in both texture and taste  – it was superb. The couscous was moist with a light tomato sauce mixed in. I enjoyed it all – I know when I’m onto a good thing. I like good ingredients, well cooked, and my Couscous Royale was just that. Simple but perfect.

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The belly dancer, Joanne, appeared as we were eating the main courses and moved slowly between tented alcoves, spending a few minutes in front of each table and returning several times during the course of her act. She was gentle and fun in her dance and willing to have people join in with her (some kids did so; Lamia and Ksenia didn’t, they said they were a bit shy but also that you should be wearing the right clothes for such things and they weren’t so take note if you’re coming here for a meal and want to dance!) Joanne was also happy to pose for photos after her show. We’re all keen photographers so we really appreciated this chance to get some nice shots.

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Our waiter Chris appeared and poured some mint tea, holding the pot way above his head and the glasses down by his waist.

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This was almost as impressive as the belly dance, getting the tea in the glass from such a height without splashing must be a tall order! The tea itself wasn’t very sweet, not the 2 or 3 lump sweet commonly found in North Africa anyway, more a subtle, calming mint de-stresser.

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I heard another waiter, serving the table near us, ask “is the wine opening up nicely for you?” I commented quietly to the girls that it was a cultured way to ask such a question, and when he was near our table later he thanked us for noticing what he’d said. I thought it nice of him to bother telling us that.

For dessert Lamia had Brulée Royale, a rich and flavourful crème brulée topped with lightly crushed pistachios.

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The girls both tried it and then ordered another each it was so good. “Very creamy and rich, but not heavy,” was how they described it. “and the pistachios are crunchy and fresh.  It’s a very refreshing dessert after the rich mains.”

Ksenia had the Moroccan Treats, the Chef’s traditional creation.

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She thought it ok, rather plain, not at all bad but overshadowed totally by the Brulée Royale.

I had the Chocolate Oasis, a decadent, flourless, semi-sweet chocolate cake smothered in powdered sugar.

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The cake was like a brownie, a little chewy, very chocolatey and drizzled with a fruity rich raspberry syrup. I did have a taste of the girls brulée and I understand what they said about it being light but this Chocolate Oasis, whilst heavier, was more my style.

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The day after we dined at the Sultan’s Tent we emailed the manager to ask a few questions…

How would you describe The Sultan’s Tent – it’s core values, it’s menu, etc – to somebody unfamiliar with the restaurant?

The Sultan’s Tent & Cafe Moroc tries to offer a well rounded experience for all your senses.  When our guests enter The Sultan’s Tent we want them to feel as if they have been transported.

You’ve been operating for several years now. In a town with so many eating options, to what do you attribute your long standing success?

We are a truly unique dining experience with stunning decor, delicious cuisine and our fabulous belly dance performance nightly.  Our tagline is “Where Toronto Celebrates” and this rings true.  The ambiance and experience evoke the feeling of celebration whether you are celebrating or not!

Has the restaurant remained staunchly Moroccan/French, or has a little of Toronto crept into its atmosphere, and it’s menu, over the years?

All of our menu items are truly French or Moroccan.  In our Cafe Moroc, at the front of the venue, we have added some Moroccan inspired sandwiches and an ever so popular Poutine with French Cheese Curds, our fall off the bone braise short rib and rib jus.  Simply delicious!

Do you offer any vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options?

Oh yes, we offer vegetarian and vegan options.  Gluten-free is also available for many of our dishes; if it is served with couscous we can simply change it to rice.

Do you source your ingredients locally, and is there anything that’s grown organically?

Most of our vegetables are grown locally.

What’s your own favourite item/meal that one can experience at The Sultan’s Tent?

I generally rotate between the items I enjoy.  I do absolutely love our Rack of Lamb with our ginger honey sauce, it’s simply amazing but what some people who know me might find surprising is that I love our Chicken Marrakech.  It’s cooked with preserved lemons and olives and I’m not a chicken person but I do LOVE this chicken!  Oh and a new item on our menu is our fabulous Macarons!  We have been told they are the best in the city and better than ones guests have enjoyed in Paris and Hong Kong!

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The Sultan’s Tent is a full evening out; there’s so much to discover that patrons linger for 3 to 4 hours. Nobody is hurried out, the waiters are welcoming and genuine, the music low which allows for conversation and its very comfortable thanks to the plentiful pillows. It’s an all-round sensory experience and if you’ve always wanted to step straight into your own 1001 Nights fantasy this just might be the place for you. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the reality of life but it’s also nice to have somebody interpret that particular brand of romance born of the solitude of the desert for you now and again in the comfort of your own backyard. And if they’re smart enough to balance a dedication to quality with a genuine desire to entertain handled with a touch that’s light enough to not get in the way of the very subtle beauty that they’re trying to convey, as they are at the Sultan’s Tent, then you’re in for a very special experience indeed. As for the food, it’s a French/Canadian interpretation of Moroccan food, and that’s understandable bearing in mind where we are. If you’re not absolutely for complete Moroccan authenticity, then chances are you’ll enjoy eating here.

To discover more please visit http://www.thesultanstent.com/

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