Restaurant review: Couscous House offers a promising, if mild, introduction to Moroccan flavors

G.A. Benton
Couscous Bowls

Given our current politically turbulent climate, the American dream might be something some immigrants to this country don’t want to wake up from, lest they face a difficult daily reality. Fatima Idouanzid — who is from Morocco and previously had jobs in housekeeping and retail — always seems to be happy to be awake and working lately, perhaps because her dream of owning a restaurant came true when she opened the new Couscous House.

Occupying a modest but extremely tidy space perked up by a red, white and black color scheme, plus a few attractive Morroccan-themed photographs, Couscous House is a low-key but pleasant and friendly establishment that specializes in an American restaurant staple: the customizable bowl.

As per usual with such operations, bowls are assembled with an array of ingredients dished up in a cafeteria-style setup. At Couscous House, the results are hefty, healthful, inexpensive and enhanced with muted, if very accessible, Moroccan accents. As the restaurant’s name suggests, bowls can be constructed upon a base of couscous.

Known as the national dish of Morocco, wheat-based couscous is North African-style pasta shaped like tiny grains. Couscous House offers steamed regular and whole-wheat couscous — as well as steamed rice, brown rice and salad ingredients — to anchor bowls.

Restaurant options are always appreciated, but this place’s name is a clue you should probably just stick with the couscous. Better yet, go with the more rare and flavorful whole-wheat couscous, which is nice and loose, nutty and has an appealing firm-yet-pliant texture.

Four meats are offered as toppers, and all of them are lightly but nicely seasoned into crowd-pleasers: tender grilled chicken slices — my favorite — mildly redolent of paprika and herbs ($7.50); somewhat dense, herb-kissed, house-made meatballs ($8.50); roasted drumsticks livened with lemon ($7); and lean, mostly tender grilled steak ($8.50).

Extra meat is available ($2.50 to $3.50), and is recommended for the drumstick option, which comes with just one chicken leg per serving. Note: Sandwich fans can opt for meats to arrive in submarine or panini form.

Bowl add-ons run hot and cold. With the exception of perhaps a few spinach leaves from the raw cold section, I think it’s best to stay with the hot accompaniments, which are mostly roasted and steamed veggies. A friendly server will walk you through the process, but loading up on all of the hot vegetables is the way to go.

Like the meats, the veggies are simply but effectively seasoned. They include delicious thin zucchini disks roasted until crisp, acorn squash, parsley-flecked carrots, cabbage, potatoes, chickpeas, turnips and caramelized onions scented with cinnamon. Pro tip: Say “yes” to ladles of flavorful chicken or beef broth and toasted almonds or walnuts. I also like to sparingly dot the bowls with harissa — the fiery and garlicky hot sauce offered, which I strongly recommend getting on the side.

Two simple but good and hearty soups — lentil and white bean ($2.50 each) — are available, and the small menu is rounded out with a nice selection of recommended house-made cookies (three for $2.50).

Polishing off some of those lovely cookies with a gratis glass of soothing, Moroccan-style mint tea, I stared at three evocative photographs on the wall that depict wheat growing in a field; couscous being made; and a very tempting, ready-to-eat tagine — a famously fragrant and often elaborate stew made with couscous.

I’d like to think that this evolution-like visual message will be mirrored in Idouanzid’s business experience — and she can next open a more serious Moroccan restaurant that offers actual tagines. Here’s hoping that amiable Couscous House is successful enough that it allows Idouanzid to dream even bigger.

Couscous House

1611 Morse Rd., North Side