First Look: Marrakesh Mediterranean Market

Initial impressions from the new Ponce City Market food stall

Monday April 25, 2016 04:00 am EDT

"Are you going to eat all that, dude?" a wide-eyed stranger asked as I unwrapped about eight dishes from Marrakesh Mediterranean Market inside Ponce City Market. I was sitting at a communal table opposite the take-out restaurant.

"No," I said. "I can't eat it all. Want some?"

"Sure," his female companion blurted.

I was on a mission. I'd been to Marrakesh once before with three friends and we'd found the food in extreme need of improvement. That was a Friday night and I surmised that the huge crowd may have put the kitchen under duress. So I decided to return alone on a Wednesday afternoon. To my regret, nothing was better.

"I gotta warn you that I haven't found the food very good," I said, tossing my dinner companions some pita bread. "Dig in!"

The one dish the three of us greatly enjoyed was a plate of chicken schnitzel. The cutlets were crunchy with mildly seasoned breadcrumbs. When I ordered the dish, I told the man at the counter I had no idea that schnitzel was popular in Morocco. He explained that it's actually more of an Israeli specialty. The restaurant, despite its name, is broadly Middle Eastern. That makes sense because co-owner Dikla Bimbaum is Israeli with Moroccan family roots. She also operates the quite likeable, kosher Pita Grille on Wieuca Road. The other owner, Udi Hershkovitz, owns FuegoMundo in Sandy Springs.

It's hard to imagine, with the owners' backgrounds, why the food is so unappealing. Much of it — like the hummus and baba ghanoush — is super bland. With the hope of adding something flavorful to the plain hummus I tried during my first visit, I ordered one topped with ground beef. The meat was greasy, gamy, and was probably cooked well in advance. Unfortunately, the baba ghanoush, in which I dipped some pieces of the schnitzel, seemed weirdly bereft of eggplant flavor. A container of matbucha, roasted red peppers and tomatoes, was so slimy it rendered the spicy flavor impossible to enjoy.

At this point, my new friends excused themselves. "Don't waste any of that!" the man shouted as they walked to Super Pan. His companion laughed hysterically. "Don't do this to me!" I shouted back.

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I liked the slow-cooked, mildly spiced chicken shawarma, although it was served tepid. Nicely spiced "rice with benefits" included bits of dried fruit and nuts. But kebobs of ground lamb were weirdly bitter, as was a plate of soggy eggplant. Roasted cauliflower, yellow and dusted with a red powder, was nicely crunchy but, again, flavor-flat. A new dish for me was sliced pickles that accompany the hummus. They tasted like run-of-the-mill dill pickles to me.

My test of most quickie Mediterranean kitchens is the falafel. It should provide a clear taste of ground chickpeas with a crispy exterior. I ordered it stuffed in pita bread with the usual diced tomatoes and hummus. Fail. The falafel was shockingly soggy. Most of the menu's dishes, by the way, are available as plates or pita pockets. You can also get the comparatively jumbo laffa.

I need to issue one warning. It's easy to spend a surprisingly large sum of money here. Be aware, though, that small plates (mezze), sides, and a bowl of baklava, when ordered a la carte, will serve at least two diners. If you order a plate, though, you get two smaller portions of your choice.

Like most stalls at the market, Marrakesh is a looker, with various pieces of colorful ceramic ware for sale. The staff is sharp. I hope the food will get better, but the stall has been open since February, and that's plenty of time to work out problems. If you want a well-executed comparative experience, try Yalla at Krog Street Market. Meanwhile, just about any booth in the Ponce food hall is going to provide a better experience than Marrakesh. Indeed, my new friends returned to my table with their Super Pan sandwiches.

"Are you going to share?" I asked, joking.

"Hell no," the man replied. "It's not bad enough to share."

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