HAPPILY EVER AFGHAN

One quibble. Meals are served individually, not family-style for sharing, as in Chinese restaurants. Chopandaz offers the option of family-style dining, but tacks on an annoying buck-per-person charge. What next, fees for cloth napkins and sharper knives? It's the same food, isn't it?

Moroccan Restaurant, 4228 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 947-9590. Hours: Dinner, 4 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Even during the September restaurant doldrums, the Moroccan seems to thrive. On a recent Friday night, every cushion was taken.

Although there is a small area for Western-style tables and chairs, most patrons opt to sink to the floor and prop themselves on plush cushions surrounding low, ornate tables. If you dine native, be sure to dress comfortably, with loose waistbands. And women should avoid short skirts. A pulling, tugging group across from us gave the belly dancer some unintentional competition.

The menu here is simple. You choose one of four complete dinners, ranging from $12.50 to our choice, the $23.50 Sheik's Feast.

The ritual begins as the waiter pours water over your outstretched fingers. Since there's no silverware (unless you wimp out and ask), they're about the only means of food transport here. And with the food served family-style, your party's publicly cleaned hands furnish a certain reassurance.

There is an etiquette for eating out of communal plates. Mentally carve out an area in front of you that corresponds to your share, and don't stray. It's not good form to reach over to the far side of the plate and grab a particularly tasty-looking morsel.

The meal gets under way with a perky bowl of peppery lentil soup seasoned with cumin. Grab it with both hands and sip, but not too fast, because everything here comes out of the kitchen steaming hot.

And although it's a six-course meal, don't pass up the robust anise-flecked bread that waiters haul around in a big basket. It's a great vehicle for dipping in soup and scooping up the next course.

That's salad, a wonderful plate ringed with tender, marinated carrots and cucumbers circling fragrant, pur‚ed eggplant. You won't be able to look at a wedge of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing again.

By now you might be ready to stretch out your folded legs. Mine, though, had gone completely numb, and I was as incapable of standing as a newborn baby.

No matter. I gave my full attention to the b'stilla, the best thing here. It's oven-hot flaky pastry dough stuffed with meat, nuts and coddled eggs and brushed with powdered sugar. Carefully tear at it with your hands, and remember not to smooth your hair or reach into your pockets.

The Moroccan's management has meal pacing down to a science. After the b'stilla, which everyone seems to have been served simultaneously, the belly-dancing entertainment begins. We witnessed lots of shimmying, shaking and undulating, an outstanding demonstration, as far as my untrained yet eager eye could tell, of the belly dancer's art.

Another etiquette note: diners show their appreciation by stuffing bills in the dancer's gyrating costume. Do not insert a large bill and try to make your own change. Bring some singles with you.

Dinner resumes with the entrees, usually the weak link here, but somewhat better this visit. Chicken fassi is long-simmered chicken cooked with lemon juice and olives. It's only a bit tart, without enough oomph to really make you take notice and pucker.

Lamb m'rouzia comes drenched in honey and sprinkled with raisins and almonds. It's offbeat, and not to my companions' taste. I liked the flavor fine, but the meat was too chewy.

Only the shrimp kotban was defect-free. Six genuinely fresh-tasting shrimp arrived perfectly grilled and skewered, and had us looking around for more.

Next up was couscous, a mild North African grain supporting pleasant steamed carrots, zucchini, squash and turnips. It's pretty bland, lacking a zippy sauce, nothing a visiting relative couldn't handle.

The baklava dessert is the only entirely uninteresting item here, a commercial-tasting afterthought. But the lively mint tea, poured by a skilled waiter from great heights, is a refreshing way to finish off the meal.

Sure, the Moroccan is touristy and kitschy. But it's an evening's worth of reasonably priced good food and entertainment that invariably sends me home in a better mood than when I entered.

FIFE IMITATES ART TOO BAD HE WASN'T AT T... v9-30-92

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