Pittsburgh now has its first authentic Moroccan restaurant.
Kous Kous Cafe opened a couple weeks ago at 665 Washington Rd., Mt. Lebanon in the former space of Enrico Biscotti. The 500-square-foot, 28-seat eatery is helmed by Abdel Khila, a Morocco native who's been chefing in Pittsburgh for about a decade, at such venerated spots as Shadyside's go-to BYOB Cafe Zinho and the now-defunct Baum Vivant and La Foret.
A few years ago, Khila decided to get out of food, got his master's degree in education, and became a foreign language teacher in Upper St. Clair, not far from where he lives with his wife and two young children in Beechview. He's taking a break from teaching to open Kous Kous, but says he hopes to get back to his high school Arabic students after the restaurant gets on its feet. The students actually helped shaped Kous Kous Cafe's menu: Their favorite roasted vegetable hummus (thick and creamy with an earthy tang) made the cut even though Khila acknowledges that hummus is not a traditional Moroccan food.
The rest of the menu is pretty classic French-influenced Moroccan, from mint tea to start to creme brulee to save room for. A sweetly spicy eggplant "ratatouille" dip; whole grilled fresh sardines; vegetarian couscous served with homey chunks of seasonal squash and chargrilled peppers and carrots; sandwiches on house-made flatbread; briny green olives; braised beef in plum sauce with whole roasted almonds; a tagine of flaky, chermoula-marinated skate wings and saffron rice. Proteins are glass-fed and free-range, and the produce is as fresh and whenever possible, local. The flavors are complex and a lot more muted than anticipated for those who are used to Americanized Moroccan cooking that goes heavy on the cinnamon and tongue-singeing spice.
Khila spent five months renovating the space himself, and transformed the former bakery into what feels like a genuine (classy) hole-in-the-wall in Casablanca. Most of the decor, including the tiles and lanterns are imported, and Khila's brother created the paintings, whose rich cultural vibrancy mirrors Kous Kous' gorgeously plated flavors.
Sign up to receive Pop City each week.
Writer: Caralyn Green
Source: Abdel Khila, Kous Kous Cafe
Photograph copyright Caralyn Green