While Skokie may not be considered a dining destination, it does have two culinary graces–kosher restaurants and a lineup of excellent Mediterranean places. Avraham Zaguri’s five-month-old Marrakesh combines the two, serving kosher Moroccan food. The style is popular in Israel, where there’s a sizable Moroccan population. “I didn’t open it just to be a kosher restaurant,” says the 37-year-old observant Jew. “But I have to taste the food to keep up the quality and make sure it’s right. It doesn’t take a lot to keep it kosher, either; the cuisine doesn’t have much dairy in it anyhow.”
Zaguri grew up in central Israel. In 1988, after serving three years in the army, he came to the U.S. “Like everyone, I came to visit,” he says. “But I met my wife and never left.” He started General Remodeling, a carpentry and handyman business, with the ambition of opening a restaurant “when the opportunity was right.” His job required him to drive around the suburbs a lot, and last December he spotted the vacant space in a strip mall on Dempster west of McCormick. “My finances were in order, and the location, between I-94 and McCormick Boulevard, seemed good to me,” he says. “But the key was the parking.”
Fluent in both Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, Zaguri is connected with the Israeli and Moroccan communities in Chicago, and through word of mouth he found a Moroccan chef who’d recently relocated from Canada. (He’s since moved back, leaving Zaguri to run the kitchen.) “We combined our knowledge–I brought some recipes, and he brought his experience with a commercial kitchen.” Zaguri also picked up several former employees of L’Olive, the Moroccan restaurant on Halsted that closed last year.
It took him two months to remodel the former Garden of Eden space, which now features cheerful peach rag-rolled walls, blue halogen track lights, and a giant cream-colored rectangle that looks like a large rug on one wall. “That’s a desert cover, for protection from sandstorms and cold,” says Zaguri. “It was my great-aunts who gave it to my mom, then she gave it to me.” Several smaller handwoven rugs provide more decoration, as do teapots and tagines, the ceramic plates with tepeelike lids that are named for the dish commonly served in them.
“There really aren’t any restaurants like this in Israel,” Zaguri says. “We all cook at home. I never even went to a restaurant until I was an adult, and all I can remember is the falafel, and later pizza came. There isn’t really a [national] cuisine there, since it’s made up of all different types of people. It’s mostly just Middle Eastern food.”
He pays respect to his homeland with the pita sandwiches, filled with shish kebab and shawirma and falafel. One of the appetizers he offers is ground-beef or potato cigars, wrapped in thin dough and deep-fried crisp. There’s also a medley of small, colorful starters: an eggplant spread spiked with garlic and cumin, a salad of cucumbers and ripe tomatoes tossed in a piquant lemon vinaigrette, and Marrakesh carrots, which are slightly cooked, then tossed in a spicy brown paste. “Those are the Jewish Moroccan dishes,” Zaguri says. “The Jews made the food a little different from the classics when they settled there.” He offers 12 salads in all, plus a five-salad sampler.
Main courses include a vegetable couscous, steamed to order and loaded with huge chunks of carrots, turnips, zucchini, celery, and onions cooked in a savory sauce. The only dish that required modification for kosher law is the pastilla: chicken, cinnamon, almonds, onions, and raisins layered between phyllo dough, cooked until crisp, then sprinkled with powdered sugar for contrast. Traditionally the phyllo is brushed with butter, but Zaguri uses a soy-based margarine, which doesn’t detract much from either the flavor or texture. There’s also chicken or lamb tagine, the classic stew of fruit and meat; preserved-lemon chicken; and a hefty vegetarian section that includes shakshuka (fried eggs with green peppers), a hummus and eggplant sandwich, and a meatless version of the pastilla.
While Zaguri contemplates applying for a liquor license, he maintains a BYO policy, but all wine must be approved as kosher before being opened. “They’re making some good kosher wine today,” he says, like the Australian Teal Lake Chardonnay his customers frequently bring. Patrons who want to stay on the safe side should bring beer. “Most beers are kosher, so you don’t have to worry,” Zaguri says. He’ll also offer arrack (called mehia in Arabic), an anise-flavored liqueur similar to ouzo. “A lot of my customers like this,” he says, “and they all leave happy.”
Marrakesh is at 3334 W. Dempster in Skokie, 847-676-1948.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.