“Blessed are you in your coming, blessed are you in your departure”
– Moroccan Blessing
Often, when I’ve had a particularly good work-week, or have accomplished a hard-to-achieve goal, I’ll reward myself by calling up some foodie friends and spending a long, decadent evening in one of our favorite restaurants.
Some guys golf, some guys gamble…I graze.
This week, we chose Dar Essalam, a tiny Moroccan eatery in my hometown of Wilsonville, and, as always, I’m so glad we did.
The intimate dining area is decorated with Moroccan pottery, artwork, and gorgeous handcrafted furniture, while the air is redolent with cumin, paprika, cinnamon, and orange blossom. A spicy, mysterious aroma which completes the fantasy that we have stepped though some African wardrobe and found ourselves on the sultry streets of Marrakech.
Owners Abdellah and Dee Elhabbassi, also the Executive Chefs, wait-staff, and greeters here, welcome us in with warm smiles and hugs, settling us into our chairs and chatting with us like long-lost family.
These two restaurateurs moved from Denver to Abdellah’s home town of Rabat, Morocco solely to study the finest Moroccan restaurants and traditional recipes before returning to open their own establishment, and they don’t hide themselves away in the kitchen.
Indeed, the allure of Dar Essalam, besides the outstanding menu, is the genuine hospitality, the obvious passion that the Elhabbassi family has for their work, and the love they feel for their customers.
Dar Essalam is translated House of Tranquility, and everything from the subdued lighting, to the dark woods and pastel walls, work in harmony to live up to the name. You can’t help but feel a little better, just walking in and sitting down.
Still, we’re here to eat…
Each meal begins with a progression of appetizers, starting with a deliciously mild hummus, served with pita, followed by a dark brown lentil soup in a rich beef broth that’s spiced with cilantro, cumin, and chili powder.
Finally, before your entrée arrives, you’re offered a sampler of four seasonal salads. Ours consisted of carrole a La sharmoula (cumin and cinnamon marinated carrots), julienned pickled beets, a fresh, crisp green bean salad, and finally, savory potato wedges with finely diced onions. Though completely different in flavors, this reminded m of what i enjoy about Korean food, the series of small plates called bonchon.
Wanting to try something new, we also ordered Bakola, a warm “Moroccan style” sautéed and marinated spinach topped with cream cheese, za’atar (a Middle Eastern spice blend), and pine nuts. This decadent spread is also served with warm pita wedges, and is very, very hard to stop eating.
All of this is washed down with generous tumblers of the amazing mint and orange blossom green ice tea, or small glasses of Dar Essalam’s aromatic blend of hot Chinese green and jasmine teas, made even more enticing by adding orange blossom water and then infusing it with fresh mint leaves.
My friend and fellow gastronome, Dane, will drink this sweet, exotic brew as fast as they refill the brass teapot.
Now, remember…you haven’t eaten dinner yet!
Entrees consist of a variety of tajines, which are a slowly simmered Moroccan dish that derives its name from the shallow earthenware pan and cone-shaped lid it is cooked, as well as served, in. The Elhabbassi’s tajines include lamb shank, beef oxtail, or saffron Cornish hen.
Also on the menu are hearty salads, a selection of grilled kabobs, and Pastilla, a dish involving layers of chicken accented with an exquisite spicing of saffron, parsley, coriander and cinnamon, all in a phyllo dough that’s lightly dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
We tried several of the tajines, including my favorite: lamb shank with preserved lemon and artichokes. This is just one of several “savory” tajine options. Also offered are a variety of ingredients for sweet or spicy tajines as well.
Next, we shared another of my favorite dishes, The Sultan’s Platter, which consists of a generously mixed grill of beef, lamb, saffron chicken, and grilled prawn kabobs.
Just a side note: I’m a seafood junkie, with prawns being near the top of my list…and these were the best grilled shrimp I’ve ever tasted (and those who know me, know I don’t say the following lightly…) including my own.
All of these dishes are typically eaten with the first three fingers of the diner’s right hand, and with fresh, warm flatbread for sopping up the rich, flavorful sauce that fills the bottom of the tajine. Dane opted for the saffron Cornish hen, which was a thing of beauty.
Just as the first groans of sated pleasure were being uttered, it was time for dessert.
Feeling adventurous, I ordered the flan with orange essence, which turned out to be a small pot of creamy caramel wonderfulness, along with an assortment of light pastries, all dished up so artfully that I was almost afraid to disturb it…almost.
Others in the group shared Dar Essalam’s signature dessert, The Casablanca, which, after the long progression of dishes, can catch the breath of the heartiest of eaters.
The Casablanca is a buttery pastry stuffed with peaches, pears, and bananas, then dusted with powdered sugar and sprinkled with toasted almonds. It’s served fresh from the oven (order it at the start of your meal) and topped with a huge dollop of vanilla-bean ice cream.
Think of the best peach pie you’ve ever had, wrap it in puff-pastry, top it with really good ice cream, then times its goodness by three…and you’re getting close to what it’s like to finish your feast with The Casablanca.
Finally, after two hours, we concede…the Elhabbassi’s have won again, and we cannot eat another bite. After some after-dinner banter and laughs with our hosts, as well as some much-appreciated kitchen talk, we hoist our leftovers, and waddle out.
At the door, we receive a sprinkling of aromatic orange-blossom water on our hands from Abdellah (another Moroccan tradition) and another hug from Dee, along with the loan of an old family cookbook which has clearly been much loved. I had asked Dee’s advice on a Moroccan inspired barbecue recipe, and she insisted that I take her treasured cookbook home with me to study…with all the little hand-written notes still in it.
Really, that’s just the kind of people they are.
With what is certainly the finest restaurant in Wilsonville and, in my admittedly limited experience, quite possibly the best Moroccan restaurant in the state, Abdellah and Dee Elhabbassi aim to please…and with Dar Essalam’s marriage of superb food and warm hospitality, they’ve hit a bulls-eye.
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Dar Essalam is located on the East side of Wilsonville, just across the street from the Wilsonville Visitor’s center and the Oregon Korean War Memorial, at 29585 SW Park Place, Suite A Wilsonville, OR, 97070
Phone: (503)-682-3600 E-Mail: ContactUs@daressalam.org
Novelist, food blogger, and award winning travel writer, Perry P. Perkins lives with his wife Victoria and their daughter Grace, in the Pacific Northwest.
A third-generation chef, Perry has written for hundreds of magazines and anthologies, including: Oregon Coast, NW Travel, Today’s Dietitian, Escapees Magazine, The Dollar Stretcher, & Travel Through History. His inspirational stories have been included in eleven Chicken Soup anthologies as well.
Perry is the founder and CEO of the non-profit, MY KITCHEN Outreach Program, teaching hands on nutrition shopping and cooking classes for at-risk and special-needs kids.