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Susan Weinrebe
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Tizi Melloul

Tizi Melloul: Boullibasse and Belly Dancing in Chicago

by Susan Weinrebe
January 29, 2006
Tizi Melloul
531 N. Wells Street
Chicago, IL 60610

Tizi Melloul: Boullibasse and Belly Dancing in Chicago

Tizi Melloul
(Tizi Melloul Website)
531 N. Wells Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Susan Weinrebe
January 29, 2006

Why go all the way to Tangiers when you can simply drop into the kasbah-in-Chicago restaurant, Tizi Melloul? Amid the jeweled hues of banked cushions and richly colored trappings, I spent an evening immersed in the sounds, sights and tastes of lush Mediterranean climes.

When I'd been to Tizi Melloul this past summer to watch and write about the Second Annual Golden Navel Contest, I promised my husband I'd bring him along the next time.

While the guys parked the car, my friend and I arrived early to get the best seating. As soon as we turned the corner of the foyer entrance to the restaurant, and were warmly greeted by the host, it felt like we weren't in the windy city anymore.

Brass and tile, cloud-like fixtures and a lounge opened onto an expansive room that created the ambiance of a sheik's tent. But we were headed to a cozier nook, the Crescent Room, seating about 25 people, where we planned to start with the prix fixe appetizers and unlimited glasses of red and white wines.

At first, the room was cool despite its compactness. We seated ourselves at the center curve of copper-topped tables holding lit candles, and we lounged against the abundant Arabian motif pillows. Sapphire and ruby hangings accented with gold led upwards to Tizi's signature multi-glassed chandelier casting a mysterious and romantic glow.

The wait staff could not have been more attentive as we selected our choice of wines, refilling glasses before we even noticed the need. We began with the prompt arrival of several dozen fire-roasted Prince Edward Island mussels sided with harissa butter, spicy enough to warm the back of my throat. Mounded on a double-decker serving piece, it was easy to neatly stack discarded shells.

Then, that most traditional of middle-eastern staples, roasted hummus with an olive oil well in the middle, arrived. Crisp cracker bread baked with herbs and pines nuts stood up to the task of scooping dollops of the hummus. The third appetizer was the richest of all, feta cheese baked inside phyllo dough and served with another sauce, this time a slightly sweet apricot-ginger mixture.

Just as we'd decided to extend our meal and order entrees, the music swelled, and Abrevaya made her appearance at the half-valanced entrance to the room. A ready audience waited to be hypnotized by her Middle Eastern dancing. Besides us, there was an all women's birthday party to our left, and a mixed-gender gathering on the right.

As Abrevaya swirled toward us amid a cloud of chiffon veil, it was impossible not to imagine being a pasha for whom this talented artist exclusively performed. That's how intimate the room felt though each party comfortably maintained their own space.

Turning to each of the three audience points, Abrevaya varied her choreography expansively. Every sequence of movements appeared to be spontaneous response to the musical cues. Several times in each of her two sets, she gestured for people to come up and dance with her and they accepted her invitation. The casually exotic atmosphere made it easy to have fun.

Our meals arrived from a menu so varied I would be hard pressed to isolate one cuisine. My husband chose potato gnocchi with spring vegetables, wild mushrooms and saffron corn cream. It was a hearty and hot dish to satisfy carbohydrate craving.

My friend chose sea bass, and it was mild, its texture more akin to salmon and suiting my taste better than the fatty fish I'd expected. Her husband's boullibasse, while crammed with shell and other fish cuts, lacked the "kick" he'd hoped for. I'd have liked to see steam venting from his nose, but this was a milder variety.

Chicken bisteeya, the dish I chose, was a mélange of shredded chicken, mushrooms, currants, almonds and fragrant spices. It arrived in a neat little bundle topped with a cinnamon-scented wafer, and I was entirely pleased with the flavor and consistency of my selection.

Still paying penance for holiday excesses, we passed on coffee and didn't even think of dessert. But we were satisfied by that point with entertainment and a meal that elevated our evening to a higher plain of sensory delight.

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