October 29, 2001 | Ask Gael

Why Zitoune?

         It's the Arabic word for olive, a beloved soccer star of the eighties, and Moroccan-born Alain Bennouna's third effort to score on this corner. After just ten days in Fez and Marrakech (or so he confides), chef-partner Julian Clauss-Ehlers has absorbed an impressive feeling for what gourmands count among the world's great cuisines. His French training shows in the elegance of classics like cinnamon-stippled b'steeya (smartly using moist duck) and in fragrant harira--the meaty soup eaten to break the fasts of Ramadan. Fusion breakouts are measured, too, as in deep-fried crab briwats on tomato chutney, and in seared-lamb carpaccio with the complex spicing of ras el hanout (also a barely detectable accent in the chocolate-wrapped cappuccino mousse). Even so, I detect wariness in his timid seasonings. But veal cheeks with dates, almonds, and honey is a real triumph, and the vegetable couscous is properly fluffy. (The essential fiery harissa never appears. We have to ask.) Add a point for gentle prices and a $25 prix fixe with a glass of wine if you're willing to exit by 8 p.m.
Zitoune 46 Gansevoort Street, 212 675 5224