Three years ago, for five minutes, we had more kebabs on Second Street than you could shake a skewer at.
There was the Afghan place – Skewers – a tiny, artsy jewel of a restaurant. There was 2nd Street Kabobs, which was Syrian, with bright lighting and castoff diner furnishings and legendary politico Mike Veon taking meetings at a table outside.
And up the street was La Kasbah, run by a family from Morocco. They left their own restaurant there and wound up in a terrible location here, just north of Forster and tucked back away from the passing traffic so it is not possible to find unless you already know where it is. It’s a great secret rendezvous spot, with a bit of the dark romance remembered from “Casablanca.”
That La Kasbah was the only Middle Eastern restaurant to survive says something good about the food and the service.
Mohamed and Ty Safouan run the restaurant. Their father Driss, 50 years a butcher, cuts the halal meat for the deli counter and does the cooking. “So it’s like home-made,” said Ty, our genial server. “If you don’t like the food, talk to my father. I didn’t do it.”
We did like the food, but said “Bonjour” to Mr. Safouan anyway. Like many Moroccans, the Safouans speak English and French and, Ty said, not much Arabic.
For apps, we got the garlic hummus, eggplant, peppers with olives and a surprisingly tasty beet-onion salad.
Surprising for me, at least, because I grew up with the overpowering aroma of beets coming from the cafeteria kitchen at St. Margaret Mary School in Penbrook. On days when overcooked beets weren’t the vegetable of choice, we got the overpowering sauerkraut smell. Hated both ever since.
These beets, however, were crisp and sweet, possibly steamed, and paired delightfully with the onion. The hummus was smooth and not overly garlicked. The Zaalouk – the eggplant stew – drew kind remarks from everyone, and the peppers had a delayed heat that made the eating fun.
If there were still a three-site kebab competition for entrees, the Safouan family would fare well. But their real cooking comes with the variety of tagines.
A tagine is a stew named for the pot it’s cooked in: a flat, circular earthenware dish with a conical lid that’s designed to return rising moisture to the bottom of the pan, to keep the meat moist. The cone (listen up, cooks) has a knob handle at the top that stays relatively cool, so you can lift off the cover to check on things or add veg without needing a pot holder.
This is a North African dish also found in Algerian and Tunisia. The Moroccan version of tagine usually means slow cooking of cheaper cuts like the neck or shank of lamb, but Ty told us that Driss uses the leg, the lovely classic cut for the most delicious lamb dishes.
Lou’s lamb tagine was all of that, sweet and earthy.
“This is large chunks of lamb, very tender, very lean,” he said. “It’s delicious, velvety, with carmelized onions and a very interesting stewed prune.”
Prunes, pears, olives, quinces, apples and apricots are frequent guest-stars with the tagine protein, as is honey.
Michelle’s broiled chicken had a warm, fruity aspect she thought was oranges.
“I asked, and it was cinnamon and honey,” she said. “The chicken was very, very tender,” with a rich sweet tomato sauce and crushed almonds. “The caramelized onion lent a depth to it I wasn’t expecting.”
Lamb and chicken dishes were a success all the way down the table.
“I had the last lamb chop,” Jamie said, “and what a good choice! The preparation was perfect, it was very tender on a bed of potatoes and mushrooms that were spectacular. I highly recommend it.”
Sara liked her Chicken a l’Orange, and Danielle was pretty enthusiastic about the Lemon Chicken with green olives. “It was to die for, the sauce was awesome, I love it. I’m actually dipping my pita bread in it.”
The side dishes were excellent. The Mediterranean salad combined tomatoes, cucumbers, Feta, herbs and oil, no vinegar. “The tomatoes, as they should be at this time of year, are perfect,” Lou said.
You can almost taste the bruschetta when Michelle talks about it.
“It’s wonderful! The onions are fresh, the tomatoes are fresh, and the balsamic is like nothing you’d get out of a bottle at the grocery store. It’s earthy and deep and rich. It’s got such a good flavor, I’d probably eat the balsamic by itself.”
Whoa. Now that’s a foodie.
The only clunker of the evening was, alas, the fish.
Lynn got the flounder in a lemony, garlicky Sharmola sauce, with some bite from cumin and a hint of cilantro. The flounder was the problem.
“It was a bit oily for me, I prefer fish that’s a little crisper and drier,” Lynn said. “But it was not overcooked, which is a real virtue with fish. I had the broiled asparagus, which I think is not the best was to prepare asparagus. So I’m a little bit negative about the meal. The saffron rice is delicious.”
Dessert was chebbakya, a Moroccan sesame cookie – fried dough with almond, sesame and honey, folded into a flower shape and delivering a quiet bouquet of flavor.
On an unlikely stretch of Second Street, a quiet bouquet of flavor you might not notice if you didn’t know it was there.
913 North Second Street