By Anna Mindess
The haunting strains of North African music float from the strings of an Algerian mandol and the soulful voice of acclaimed musician, Maestro Omar Mokhtari. As I enter a sun-dappled garden ringed by tents draped with colorful carpets, I head straight for the blue-and-white tile tables set with bowls of olives, hummus and pita triangles. Meanwhile, the sizzling scent of spiced meat wafts from the rotating shawarma spit.
Is this an exotic corner of Casablanca? Actually, I’m in the middle of Berkeley. Here in the back of Sahara Home Décor, an Ashby Avenue shop, owner Mostafa Raiss El Fenni orchestrates Moroccan-style celebrations. At this birthday party, I join the guests to sample appetizers and drinks while relaxing on low cushions edged by engraved brass trays atop carved wooden tables.
Against one garden wall, caterer Chef Mohammed Hicham, in his white chef’s jacket, tends the vertical rotisserie, shaving off delicately golden brown shards of a lamb and beef mixture. “The most important ingredient is the spices,” he says, reluctant to divulge the details of his secret blend. “My mother in Morocco sends me boxes of organic spices that she has ground herself: saffron, ginger, red and black pepper. I spice the meat and then put it two days in the freezer where the spices get absorbed into the meat.”
Mostafa Raiss El Fenni, a former Cal student and research chemist who found he missed his homeland, opened this shop in 2005 to promote the works of contemporary Moroccan artists. It features handmade mosaic table-tops, blue and white Fes ceramics, leather ottomans, embroidered textiles, elaborately framed mirrors, multi-faceted brass lanterns as well as classic, conical clay tagine pots and delicately painted tiny tea glasses.
El Fenni rents out the store’s back garden for parties — from a bridal shower with a Berber henna artist who created intricate designs for guests as they sipped mint tea and sampled Moroccan pastries, to a full dinner for a group of up to 40 friends. In his role as host, he does much of the cooking himself. Tonight, dressed in a black caftan, he carries in platters of traditional Moroccan dishes: zaalouk, a melt-in-your mouth cooked salad of eggplant and roasted tomatoes, creamy lentils and onions, pungent roasted peppers and a green salad with fresh mint.
“The food, the music and the art all work together,” he says, his warm smile framed by a neat goatee, “to create a corner where you can get away and experience North African culture, right here in Berkeley.”