In the '90s, Youssef Idrissi spent six years catering movie sets in Morocco, helping feed celebrities and work crews on big-budget films such as Gladiator. He moved to New York City in 1999, then made his way to Denver, where he spent eight years at the Ali Baba Grill.
When his wife wished to take a hairdressing job in Colorado Springs, Idrissi agreed to take yet another step away from the bustling business center of Casablanca. And there was a job open: Taste of Jerusalem owner Abdul Nasser needed a chef. Nasser was finishing a costly kitchen remodel that, after eight years, would allow his restaurant to go beyond countertop electric cooking.
To Nasser's credit, dating back to when he split with his former business partner of the local Heart of Jerusalem brand, Taste of Jerusalem has held strong enough. It even launched a South Academy Boulevard expansion, though Nasser shut that down when he felt that his divided attention was affecting food quality.
With Idrissi at the helm, he need worry little about that quality now. The food downtown tastes better than ever.
Idrissi, introducing himself tableside, provides warmly polite but abbreviated answers as to how he concocted the Mediterranean breakfast spread before us.
The menu description for the foul mudammas, boiled fava beans with garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, scarcely touches the amazing depth of flavor that seems to pick up notes from Latin American and Western American pantries. The plump, dark favas, joined with parsley flecks, olives and pickled turnips, absolutely shine. Scooping it all onto pita wedges, we chew deliberately, trying to piece together how each spice and the hearty-stew-like backbone fuse so beautifully. Idrissi only offers that he uses his own seven-spice blend, which notably includes cumin.
This and several newly added plates, including a few Western offerings such as steak and eggs, are now available all day, beginning at 10 a.m.; Nasser says that next summer, he may re-test his initial plan to open at 7.
Now, no ethnocentricity intended, but the foul strikes us more as a lunch or dinner item versus a breakfast plate anyway, as does a trio of fatayer, which are little canoe-shaped, homemade bread bowls that respectively host spinach, a chunky feta and tomato purée, and ground beef faintly spiced with cinnamon. A ramekin of tomato sauce accompanies for dipping, and the final result is closely akin to an Italian calzone.
Only the hearty shakshuka feels breakfast-y, because of its poached eggs in a mildly spiced chili-onion-tomato sauce, ordered with toasted pita points. (Try mixing a bite of favas in for a fun huevos rancheros effect.) The basmati rice pudding lands somewhere between a sweet oatmeal and a straight-up dessert, its al dente grains mixed with softer ones and a thick powder garnish of cinnamon.
On the affordable and familiar lunch and dinner menu, Idrissi has tightened a few recipes. His creamy hummus is exceptional, and his baba ghanoush channels a good scotch's essence with its smoky, peat-like element. Alongside go-to dishes like the vegetarian platter, he's added a short list of slightly pricier entrée platters, from seafood plates to chicken and lamb items.
With the salmon sold out and the tilapia still frozen one night, we opt for a chicken curry and an $18 lamb leg that will last me nearly two more meals as leftovers. The wet curry with big potato chunks over saffron rice exudes a sweet apple edge and tangy finish. The tenderized lamb, meanwhile, tells a story of a lengthy marinade and slow cook, the rich gaminess accented by an oily brown sauce and stewed veggies, again spiced beautifully. Only an appetizer of six charred shrimp for $7 does little for us, with a simple, creamy garlic-sauce dip.
At dessert, Idrissi's rolled-style baklava eschews the sticky and soppy sweetness of many versions, again yielding a welcome evenness. It's best enjoyed with house-mixed, black-tea-based Middle Eastern sage tea, served in decorative ceramic with a glass syrup dispenser of honey.
Hopefully Nasser hangs onto this magnificent Moroccan, or at least his recipes, because in Idrissi's hands the new Taste clearly stands in good taste.