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September 18 - 25, 1998

[Food Reviews]

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El Morocco

The best reasons why a Middle Eastern institution should be called nouveau American

by Margaret LeRoux

El Morocco
100 Wall Street, Worcester
Mon.-Thurs. 4-10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat.4 -11 p.m.
Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
full bar
Handicap accessible

A friend told me that there was a new chef at the El Morocco who is really shaking things up. She described a "fabulous" appetizer of roast quail that made my mouth water. It's been a while since I've seen quail on a menu in these parts, so another dining pal and I followed up on her lead on a recent mid-week evening.

A bit of history for those of you who haven't been to the El Morocco. Perched above the city at the top of Wall Street, the El is a Worcester institution known best for its Middle Eastern food and for its entertainment. From the 1940s through the early '60s, it was New England's link to the New York City jazz scene. Every big name performed here; late-night jam sessions were legendary. Today, the restaurant retains that big-city nightclub atmosphere with live jazzy performances.

The El's decor is sophisticated with creamy beige walls and soft, golden lighting. The spacious, two-tiered dining room accommodates a crowd without making diners feel cramped; thick carpeting keeps the noise level to a pleasant hum. There's also a spectacular view afforded by a wall of windows. At the table next to ours, a couple sipped martinis; the El is that kind of grown-up place.

We couldn't wait to try the quail and were pleased to find it on a separate sheet of specials placed on top of the regular menu. Other appetizers on the specials list included escargots sautéed in lemon sherry buerre blanc ($6), and shrimp Berardi with Gulf shrimp wrapped in Italian ham and baked in Dijon butter ($6). The El's regular menu offers an assortment of Lebanese appetizers, including a mezeh platter with a bit of everything ($6.50 for medium; $8.50 large).

Back to the quail. It arrived, roasted to a dark mahogany, the crispy skin flavored with Madeira and orange. Inside the bird, a stuffing of Mission figs and prosciutto was deliciously sweet and salty. The quail was served in a nest of onion strings; stir fried pea pods and red peppers provided a colorful accent. We tried to mind our table manners but soon abandoned our forks to gnaw on the tiny bones, savoring every last bit of the delicious meat.

We stayed with the specials for our main courses, too; grilled veal chop topped with mushroom demi-glace ($16) for me, while my companion selected crusted rack of lamb ($17). With dinner we sipped a very nice Merlot available by the glass ($5.25).

In between courses we were served a salad of iceberg lettuce and a few tomato wedges topped with the house vinaigrette -- strong on the oregano and mint. For an extra dollar each, we added feta cheese and Greek olives.

The service was friendly. When the interval between salads and dinner became noticeable, our waitress stopped by to reassure us that our meals would be out in just a few moments. They were both worth the wait.

The veal chop was thick, juicy, and tender and done exactly as I'd requested, medium. An assortment of mushrooms, including several slices of portobello, gave an earthy oomph to the simple chop -- as did the delicious pool of rich, brown demi-glace. There was a generous serving of garlic mashed new potatoes, and the two of us shared a family style serving of vegetables -- bright, crispy, green beans seasoned with a hint of garlic, slices of sweet, glazed carrots, and corn.

The rack of lamb was wonderful. Each of the eight small chops was melt-in-your-mouth tender on the inside and crisply charred on the outside. The lamb's natural juices were enhanced with a subtle seasoning of rosemary. This was another dish where we picked the bones clean; our mothers would have been mortified.

Dessert after such a meal is an afterthought, and we should have left it at that. The slice of overly sweet chocolate mousse pie ($4.25) that we shared was not up to the standards of the rest of the meal. Our bill including tax but not tip was $68.20.

Later in a phone conversation the El's new chef, Justin Kane, acknowledged that the desserts -- currently purchased, not prepared on the premises -- will be among several changes he'll be making in the menu.

Fans of the restaurant's Lebanese specialties like shish kebab, kefta, and kibbe need not worry. They'll remain as "classics," but there will be lots of innovation among the current, rather tired assortment of steaks, chicken, and fish.

Kane is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and recently helped introduce the new 6 Burner restaurant in Allston.

"I was looking for a change just as the owners of the El were looking for someone to make changes in their menu," he says.

His enthusiasm is apparent as he described a new appetizer, smoked salmon Napoleon. We're looking forward to sampling more of his culinary changes.


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