alhamra - 06If you’ve ever been to the IX building, you may have passed a stretch of curtained glass with lights glowing inside. There was no big sign to advertise what might be happening in there, and unless you really stopped to investigate you probably thought the menu by the door was a flyer tacked to a corkboard.

Had you gone in, you would have seen what too few other Charlottesvillians have had the pleasure to see: A grand, ornamented dining room, looking as if it was lifted from the streets of Morocco and put back down next to the Blue Wheel Bicycle shop here in Cville. The bar is one of the most romantic in town — vying for best bar ambiance with Vivace — and the details in the chandeliers and murals and so on reflect a big interior décor budget and lots of thought and time.

The food was a little bit hit-or-miss, but when it was a hit it was excellent. The Boustaila spiced chicken pastry is like a different language on your tongue — chicken, cinnamon, almonds, powdered sugar, and other ingredients in a flaky pie-like pastry. The Rfissa, an extremely moist chicken breast swimming in scented lentils and homemade noodles, was like Moroccan comfort food, and the cilantro-potato pancakes on the side were salty tangy  perfection. The beef pastry, on the other hand, tasted like nothing more than hamburger in fried dough, which isn’t all bad, and the Harira “national soup,” while good, is large and rich and you tire of it quickly.

alhamra - 08Though I have no basis to judge the authenticity of a Moroccan restaurant, all evidence suggests that the owners are doing everything they can to create an authentic experience. You eat with your hands, the servers come around with large silver decanters of water to let you wash before and after you eat, the dessert menu consists only of fruit since it is not customary to eat sweets after dinner in Morocco, and so on.

One of the only drawbacks to the Al Hamraa experience — and it was a benefit in some ways — was that there were not many people there. While it was nice to be seated and waited on immediately, the room and food are conducive to boisterous mingling and sharing. There is even a stage with a sound system, probably for salsa night on Tuesdays, but hinting at the alluring possibility of belly dances if enough people show up. We can only hope, for this and many other reasons, that more people do.

Erin says: “Take a date, order two Moroccan Mint Coolers, and hand feed each other lentils.”

award_star_gold_3 16Rating: Erin: Jed:

thumb_up 16 iconPros: Unique atmosphere, great bar, exotic mostly delicious food

thumb_down 16 iconCons: Strange location, somewhat inconsistent from dish to dish

money_dollar 16 iconPrice: Entrees $12-19

car famfam 16 iconParking: Plenty of free parking in the IX lot

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