There’s very little Moroccan food in Las Vegas, and, this being Vegas and all, if you do find some it makes sense to expect a somewhat cheesy, less food-focused experience. You know ... bejeweled decor, platters of hummus and olive oil-smothered roasted vegetables, and of course, belly dancers. Seems about right.
But there’s something fresh and extraordinary hiding in the Lakes. Three months ago, Argana opened in the space once occupied by Jazzed Cafe, another warm, seductive neighborhood restaurant that left you wanting more. Argana does indeed offer an environment festooned with pillowed banquettes and colorful lantern fixtures, and yes, there are belly dancers on Friday and Saturday nights. But here, those are charming accents that serve a complementary role alongside truly beautiful, craveable food.
Argana’s cuisine is created by Christopher Hajji, a native of Morocco’s capital, Rabat, who has cooked at and owned restaurants in France, Hawaii and LA. His menu is compact, bubbling with refined takes on rustic recipes. Moroccan fare may be most easily compared with Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, but Argana’s dishes are more heavily spiced, bursting with sharp, memorable flavors—ginger, cumin, cinnamon, olives, mint, saffron, lemon.
For a familiar starter, share the spreads ($12), grilled flatbread served with hummus, olive tapenade and a version of the smoked eggplant dip known as baba ganoush. Each of the three pops, the hummus is lighter and more lemon-y than expected, and the fluffy baba is easily the best we’ve tasted. Get the Moroccan Salad ($12), too, another assortment of individual vegetable dishes from which it’s hard to choose a favorite. Salads of romaine hearts with citrus ($10), fava beans with garlic and spicy radishes ($10) or braised Swiss chard with lemon juice and tangy olives ($12) offer the realization that you could create a tapas-style meal at Argana and leave perfectly satisfied. (Especially if you tack on the signature cocktail of vodka, rum, ginger, mint, honey and lemon.)
Entrées include brochettes of lamb, chicken, beef or kefta meatballs ($16-$22), served with saffron rice and grilled vegetables. Our chicken skewers were shockingly delicious, tender and smoky chunks of white meat. The flavors only get deeper from there. Beef tagine ($22) is brilliant, rich meat laced with peas, olives, artichoke hearts and preserved lemon, a dish I’ll need when our late fall finally arrives. Braised short ribs ($22) are kissed with cinnamon, honey, apricots and almonds, and lamb dishes include a slow-roasted shank ($24) with saffron and the North African spice mix ras el hanout or a mechoui-style dish ($26), spit-roasted with the spicy pepper paste harissa. Close with the cool, refreshing mint tea almond panna cotta ($6), creamy and delightful.
Even in this superb year for Las Vegas dining, Argana’s creativity and hospitality earn it a spot on any list of the city’s best new restaurants. The place is pure pleasure.
Argana 8615 W. Sahara Ave., 702-550-3200. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5-11 p.m.