Hamid Majdi grew up in the coastal city of Rabat in Morocco, where he ate bright, complex tagines and other dishes packed with layered flavors from Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, which the country’s chefs could access due to its central location in Northwest Africa. Majdi went on to go to hospitality school in Fez and worked as a maitre d’ in Morocco before winning a green card lottery and moving to Seattle in 2000 — a city he wanted to live in for its sharply evolving dining scene and access to nature.
Majdi stayed at a hotel near Pike Place Market during his first days in Seattle. He quickly got a job as a busser and worked his way through the city’s restaurants, eventually landing a gig as wine director of Pike Place’s famed Italian restaurant Il Bistro, a job he held for 10 years. But as he got to know the city’s dining scene, he found his country’s cuisine was underrepresented, even as Moroccan ingredients like harissa started popping up on menus at fine dining restaurants all over Seattle.
“We’re not very good ambassadors,” he says of his fellow Moroccan emigrants, most of whom he says don’t work in the food industry. “Most people have an idea about Moroccan food that you have to sit on the floor, and you have to eat with your hands, which is absolutely wrong,” Majdi says. “I have no idea who brought that concept to an American audience.”
Now, over 20 years after Majdi moved to Seattle, he’s trying to garner more recognition for his country’s cuisine with his fine dining restaurant in Pike Place Market overlooking Western Avenue. Shama, which opened quietly in early March, features indigo-blue walls, intricate tile mosaic on the sides of the bar, and gold-trimmed mirrors. There’s also a greenhouse-like glass-covered patio where diners can rest their feet on a large Persian rug while sitting under string lights.
Majdi describes his food as “typically Moroccan, with a little modern touch.” Most of the recipes come from his family, with fine dining twists added by himself and his chef de cuisine, Enrique Vargas, another Seattle industry vet who worked at Hotel Monaco’s now-closed Sazerac restaurant, among other places.
The chicken dish, for example, is made with bitingly sour preserved lemons, briny green olives, and subtly sweet and floral Moroccan saffron, all traditional ingredients for the dish. But it’s served as an entree in a red-brown ceramic plate instead of as a whole chicken served family-style in a tagine (how it would be served in Morocco). M’rouzia, a meltingly tender lamb shank prepared with honey, almond, prunes, and saffron, is also served fine dining style, garnished with microgreens with fluffy couscous on the side.
For a more traditional family-style dining experience, though, diners can order zarda, an experience that comes with a whole lamb shoulder served with vegetables, couscous, and side dishes, which needs to be ordered at least three days in advance ($65 per person, four-person minimum).
With Majdi’s knowledge of local wine he picked at Il Bistro, he curated a wine list that’s about half Washington wine and half wines from Oregon, California, and Europe. The cocktail list, too, is expansive, including a drink called “Here’s Looking at You, Kid,” a reference to a famous line in the movie “Casablanca,” made with vodka and house-made limoncello and rosemary syrup.
Majdi named the restaurant after Shama, a woman in his hometown who’d cook for celebrations of special occasions like births and weddings who he wanted to honor with his restaurant. In the future, when he hires more staff, Majdi hopes to start lunch service and turn the covered patio area into a wine tasting room. For now, he’s focusing on providing excellent service and giving Seattleites a taste of his culinary heritage.
“Not everyone can fly to Morocco, but you can come to Shama and have that experience in the comfort of your hometown,” Majdi says.