Riad Kniza Restaurant, Marrakech

The Riad Kniza is located about 5 minutes walk from Bab Doukkala (where the main bus station is) and a 10 minute walk from where we were staying at Riad Baraka. The area is my favourite part of old Marrakech; it’s probably how most of the old city was at one time before so many shops were given over to tourism. You won’t find a single place to buy a tacky souvenir in this district, instead you’ll encounter everything you’d need if you happened to live here. Fish and butchers shops, spices, fruit and veg, tailors, mechanics, hairdressers, basic food stops that are frequented by local workers and also general goods shops. And best of all, as long as you’re not a blatant hit and run artist, nobody is going to scream at you or demand money if you point your camera in their general direction, which happens often enough in lesser parts of the city to make it a talking point among travelers who spend time there.

It’s also a very safe part of Marrakech, we felt fine walking through the souk on the way to the Riad Kniza for our dinner, when we left at 10pm later that same evening and also a few days later when we walked here at 6am on our way to the bus station.

We were led into the interior of the Riad Kniza by Kamal, the owner. We’d had a bit of a rough time in the central souks earlier that day (the normal thing, a shop owner grabbing me by the collar because I’d dared to offer him a fair price for something he’d struggle to sell for a dollar on Ebay) and were a little flustered emotionally but Kamal, who is as charming, polite, genuine and cultured a man as you’re ever likely to meet, and the scent of jasmine and roses that swirled around the central courtyard, immediately began to soothe the day’s less pleasant memories away and put us at our ease.

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We were refreshed by glasses of cool orange juice and the gentle tinkle of the water fountain. Soft arabesque music played in the background, to be replaced by Chopin as we accepted an invitation to view the ground floor, public rooms of the Riad.

First came a smaller patio with palms, chairs and a bookcase holding a number of interesting volumes plus photos of Kamal’s father (who is a well respected local guide) posing with various famous clients including Brad Pitt, Will Smith, Kurt Russell and Ronald Reagan.

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Next came the swimming pool, massage room and hammam.

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As you can see, the Kniza is a palace of well designed, subtle luxury. A corridor led to a larger courtyard bordered by an ornate fountain and two dining rooms decorated with opulent curtains, sofas and paintings and spectacular chandeliers. It was a great joy to photograph such surroundings in a peaceful, refined atmosphere.

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Back in a private dining room that led off the first courtyard…

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…we were seated by Mohamad Sabib, our waiter. He was a great sport throughout the evening regarding photographs, posing for us the whole time and encouraging us to post them on his Facebook page; he was also an excellent English speaker and very knowledgeable about Arabic and Moroccan culture.

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Don’t let us put you off, if you want to sit in peace and share a meal without interruption then Mohamad is smart enough to pick that up and he’ll leave you alone. We, however, wanted to understand as much as possible about what we were eating and the tradition behind it, and he was more than happy to talk about the dishes as he brought them to us.

The table was scattered with fresh red rose petals.

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I’ve often got the impression that Moroccan/Islamic culture is full of a romance induced by what in the past was a harsh life (it’s impossible not to think fondly of running water, roses, general signs of comfort and perhaps the optimism of youth when your everyday environment is a monotonous one, be it the desert or the stony mountainside) but in modern Moroccan life (in fact, all across the Islamic world) this love of romance is rarely given wings. You may find a person singing nostalgically, in any language from Bengali to Berber, about a boy flirting with a girl, for instance, but God help that girl if she happened to be somebody the singer knew. And all too often you’ll see a shopkeeper in Marrakech admiring a flower detail on one of his products with a wistful look in his eye inspired perhaps by the great Urdu poets, moments before he aggressively humiliates a tourist who happened to dare offer less than the inflated price he was demanding. But here in the Riad Kniza the sense of romance that we’ve seen glimpses of elsewhere was given free reign. Roses in the fountain, petals on our table, soft music playing, candlelight throwing shadows, birds fluttering around the courtyard and most of all, the relaxed, genuinely hospitable, friendly and welcoming atmosphere created by Kamal, Mohamad and the other Kniza staff.

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Mohamad asked if we’d like wine. We suggested he choose one based on the dishes in store for us (we didn’t know what we were due to eat, there is no menu at the Kniza if you wish to be suprised), and he brought us a Cabernet rouge from Casablanca.

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It proved to be an excellent choice; relatively light and with a delicate taste, allowing the varying flavours of the food to shine.

Live music started up in the courtyard, Mohamad explained that the musicians were from Marrakech but they were playing tunes on their Oued and Dalbouka from all over the Arab world. Occasionally we picked up very distinct hints of flamenco, which must have crossed over the straits of Gibralter with the Moorish invasion over 1,200 years ago.

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The first course was a seafood b’stilla.

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We smelt the seafood filling before Mohamad appeared at the door. The experience of eating it was perfect; the pastry was crispy, there was a satisfying range of textures throughout the dish and the flavours told of excellent ingredients. There was a slight spiciness to the sauce that topped each b’stilla, it was an imaginative and tasty twist to a traditional Moroccan dish (usually a b’stilla is pigeon or chicken). We’d been in Marrakech for 9 days by the time we sat down to eat at the Kniza and had eaten at many fine restaurants, but when she’d finished this b’stilla Lamia said, “Now I understand why Moroccan cuisine is rated so highly in the world.”

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Then Mohamad bought a selection of Moroccan salads, which are more like what we’d call dips or appetizers.

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The pastry shapes were stuffed with seafood, minced beef and chicken. Then there was eggplant, taktouka pepper and tomato, sweet tomato with cinnamon and honey, potatoes and carrot with cumin, garlic, basil and lemon, beetroot with basil and olive oil, squash with orange and finally turnips with sweet peppers, lemon and olive oil. You could taste each ingredient, there was definitely nothing bland about the dishes and they were sensitively spiced as well.

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Lamia was was very excited to tell her friends about what was proving to be our number one restaurant experience in Marrakech so was happy to learn that there was free wifi, which allowed her to relax for a few minutes and post on Instagram and Snapchat.

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Our main course was lamb couscous and vegetables with a side of harissa and vegetable sauce.

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The lamb was very tender and slipped off the bone, cooked well but remaining juicy. The couscous was light, the vegetables firm. Perfect. 

A small bird fluttered in as we were eating and hopped around on the floor. We sank back into the deep sofas and enjoyed the food, and the musicians playing in the encroaching twilight.

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I spilled a little wine and Mohamad, showing his natural passion for romance, covered it with rose petals before heading off to sort the fourth course out. We were in no hurry though, we wanted to linger over the lamb tagine.

I normally try to eat vegetarian but sometimes if you want the full cultural experience you have to go with the flow. We didn’t take eating the lamb lightly and with the music of the desert playing, dinner became a meditative and spiritual experience. Call this an Orientalist viewpoint if you want, and you probably will if you’ve spent your life in the Cafe Flores and not actually put your feet where your mind and mouth is, but in my opinion, as a traditional Arabic dining experience our evening could only have been bettered had we been among desert dunes with the Milky Way blazing overhead and a band of Bedu sat beside us around the campfire.

Dining out anywhere in the world is rarely so overwhelming as to bring you to a verge of tears but in the Kniza such was the case.

Dessert was called jawhara.

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It was divine; there was an ideal range of textures, temperatures, sweetness offered by the pastry and cream and sharpness by the orange.

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Finally there was mint tea (a good digestive drink after such a complete meal) and biscuits.

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Our visit had lasted 4 hours. The meal wasn’t rushed in the slightest and we lingered over the tea until the musicians played their final note.

Marrakech has several excellent venues in which to have a memorable dining experience but for us none can match the class, fine cuisine and overall atmosphere of the Riad Kniza. In a word, it’s magnificent. Please, if you’re in Marrakech, treat yourself to an evening meal at the Riad Kniza and if you can afford it, stay there as well and enjoy the very best of Moroccan hospitality every night of your holiday.

To discover more about the Riad Kniza, please visit www.riadkniza.com

 

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