Former teacher transforms Kous Kous Cafe in Mt. Lebanon into a delicious destination
March 11, 2010 3:00 PM
Couscous tfaya, a lamb dish, is on the menu at Kous Kous Cafe in Mt. Lebanon.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Look the wrong way for just a moment and it would be easy to miss Kous Kous Cafe on Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon. The narrow storefront, previously occupied by an outpost of the Enrico Biscotti Company, seems an unlikely location for a restaurant. But Abdel Khila, the owner and chef, wasn't going to let a few small obstacles get in his way.
Although he has a strong culinary resume, Mr. Khila spent the past few years working as a French and Arabic teacher at Upper St. Clair High School. He loved teaching, but he found he couldn't let go of his dream of opening a restaurant where he could introduce Pittsburgh to the authentic flavors of Morocco, the country where he grew up.
The kitchen is miniscule. The dining area is somewhat cramped and most of the tables receive a blast of cold air every time the front door opens (at least for a few more weeks).
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations available for parties larger than four; BYOB, corkage $5.
Noise level: Loud to very loud.
Thanks to a mix of hard work, careful planning and culinary skill, these obstacles have faded far into the background.
A profusion of lovely objects helped distract from the spare, slightly awkward room. Framed collections of colorful tiles hang along one wall. The other is covered in mirrors to create an illusion of space. Hot mint tea was brewed in individual silver pots and poured into gold-painted glasses. Slices of freshly baked traditional bread arrived in woven baskets.
These evocative objects set the scene for memorable meals, pleasurably exotic to some.
Bastilla ($9.50), the iconic sweet and savory chicken pastry, was appropriately decadent. Wrapped in feuilles de brick (a non-butter pastry dough similar to phyllo), it resembled baked brie. But instead of triple-creme cheese, the golden-brown layers of crisp dough concealed dark meat chicken baked in a custard-like sauce studded with raisins and almonds.
The Moroccan platter of cold vegetable appetizers is a virtuous addition to a meal that has the added benefit of being delicious. It included roasted vegetable hummus, eggplant zaalouk (fittingly described on the menu as eggplant ratatouille) and roasted red pepper tak-tooka ($8.50).
They are served with thick, slightly chewy pita chips, ideal for spreading with hummus or piling with roasted vegetables, and each is available individually as well.
In hindsight, I'd choose a whole plate of the red pepper tak-tooka, as anyone who's gone to the trouble of roasting and peeling even a single pepper can appreciate the labor that went into a whole plate of slippery sweet slices, delicately perfumed with paprika, cumin, hot pepper and garlic.
Grilled fresh sardines ($8.50) required a deft hand with the cutlery and a tolerance for a mouthful of tiny bones, which are too soft to choke on but not always pleasant to swallow. But these intensely flavorful (not to mention sustainable and extremely healthful) fish are well worth the effort, especially when doused in such a delicious sauce of lemon brown butter with rosemary and capers.
A monotone plate of grilled merguez sausages and sauteed wild mushrooms was rich and woodsy, with just a touch of sweetness in the broth-like sauce ($8.95). The secret to this dish is simple. Mr. Khila makes the merguez himself from local lamb, raised and slaughtered in accordance with halal restrictions. He also gets local, free range chicken and sometimes eggs from an Amish farm.
Mr. Khila has only one other kitchen employee, a young Moroccan woman who helps bake the bread, bakes the cookies for dessert and does other prep work. He even makes his own stocks, something that many chefs might claim to be too difficult, given the restaurant's limitations on cooking and storage space.
Lamb, clearly a favored ingredient, shows up in a number of other variations on the menu. Small chunks add flavor to harira (cup, $2.95; bowl, $4.95), Mr. Khila's mother's recipe, which is also full of chickpeas, lentils and noodles in a slightly spicy broth.
Lamb shank appears in two dishes on the menu, which is otherwise free of repeats. As lamb osso bucco, it was braised in a saffron reduction with artichokes and cured green olives ($22.95). In couscous tfaya ($22.95), the shank is displayed on a bed of the semolina granules, smothered in caramelized onions, plump golden raisins and whole roasted almonds (the tfaya sauce). As if that weren't enough, chunks of roasted acorn squash, turnip and carrot, and a handful of chickpeas are piled on the other side of the couscous.
Occasionally, chunks of winter squash weren't quite cooked through. The varied cooking may be just an aspect of authentic Moroccan cookery, but sometimes authenticity can be ignored in favor of improvements. Hopefully, the summer season will give Mr. Khila a chance to form more contacts with local farmers, so he can incorporate local, seasonal produce into the menu as well as local meat.
Rack of lamb was a special one evening ($25.95), smaller and more intensely flavorful than most commercial lamb.
One server thoughtfully included details about daily specials, including prices, which is something the other servers should imitate. In general, service was relatively relaxed, in keeping with the ambiance, but still polished and attentive.
Salmon marinated in lemon, cilantro and garlic ($18.95) was cooked in a tajine (the name of both the conical, clay cooking vessels and the braised dishes made in them). This cooking method has the added benefit of letting the diner enjoy the burst of aroma when the lid is removed.
Although the thin sauce was visibly simmering as the lid was removed, and the bottom of the fish was crispy and browned, the salmon was perfectly cooked, each bite silky and rich, while the intense lemony sauce refreshed the palate with every bite.
Given the close quarters, all I had to do was look around me to determine that the rest of the room seemed as happy as I was. One evening, a large group of girls -- former students, it seemed, of Mr. Khila -- were celebrating a birthday, gleefully filming with their smart phones as they savored their last few bites of the luscious chocolate mousse ($4.50).
Nibbling on a faintly sweet coconut cookie ($4.50 a plate), I felt almost a little guilty. Mr. Khila was clearly well liked by his students and great language teachers can be hard to come by. But then again, so are great chefs. In this case, their loss is most definitely our gain.