The cyber world of online coupons is a fleeting one, just like most personal profiles and some Facebook connections. When I came across an offer for a Tunisian restaurant more than a year ago, I grabbed it quickly, only to be quickly disappointed by an email stating that the restaurant had closed down. But a couple of months ago, another came up for this North African cuisine and this time, hesitation had no time to register in my mind and on my finger before tapping on “purchase” on the website.
Taste of Tunisia is located on the busy Wilson Boulevard near the Courthouse Metro, Arlington, VA, and its storefront awning can be easily missed within the blink of an eye due to its inconspicuous appearance. Stepping in, you immediately confront a large wraparound counter shielding an open kitchen, reminiscent of the old-style diner. On the other side of the room was a simply painted mural of a North African doorway lit by multi-colored Tunisian lamps. Even though the décor is a bit sparse and furniture rather basic, I was reserving my assessment for the cooking and the dishes that I was going to order.
Upon taking our seat, our charming waiter first served us some Sweet Mint Tea while we perused the menu, trying to decipher this unchartered culinary terrain although I was already quite familiar with another cuisine from this region – Moroccan. Seeing that there were some similarities between these two neighbors, I detected that there were some subtle differences between the two, and I used that as a guide in making my choices. Sipping the tea helped me to ease the mind and soul as I became more comfortable with this culinary map. It was not too sweet, not too piping hot, and made fragrant by a spring of fresh mint that elevated this basic cuppa to its exotic level. This was the perfect foray to the meal despite it being a sweet drink, and we could not resist asking for a refill during the meal.
Our first appetizer was unequivocably Tunisian – Breek. It arrived as a large triangular pastry filled with potato, capers, tuna, egg, and parsley, fried until crispy and golden brown. We were not sure what to expect from this large patty but it peaked our interest. With a squeeze of lemon juice, this dish was both revealing and delicious. The pastry, although listed as phyllo dough, was Breek pastry, more like a wonton skin, encasing the interesting and savory combination that was spiked by the capers, and moistened by a sunny-side-up egg that spilled its yolk with the first fork digging. The yellow liquid provided the rich flavor and sauce to each bite which I enjoyed very much. According to Tunisian tradition, a mother-in-law would serve this to the potential bridegroom, and if he eats it without spilling a drop of the yolk, he is worthy of marriage – my companion and I were definitely not up-to-par for such proposition that night judging by the yellow mess on the plate.
An order of salad as the next course was unfortunately uninspiring despite a mound of lettuce leaves topped by almond slivers, canned olives, sultanas, Tunisian sheep cheese (like feta), and tomatoes, served with grain mustard as the dressing (interesting!). I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations for this raw vegetable dish from this regional cuisine.
For our main dishes, the first was Taste of Tunisia Couscous. A beautiful painted earthenware bowl arrived brimming with some couscous grain topped with Merguez sausage, lamb chops, chickpeas, a wedge of potato, and a thick slice of zucchini and carrot. Although I have had my share of this grain dish, there were some unique touches to this dish. First, the couscous was an orangey yellow hue and it still had a slight bite to it, which the waiter pointed as a main difference from the Moroccan version. The next was the spice level of the dish coming from the use of the red pepper Harissa sauce in the gravy and also in the small Merguez lamb sausages that packed a wallop in the flavor department. The chickpeas and vegetables were perfectly cooked tender and the lamb chops, young lamb judging from the size, was literally falling of the bone when cut into. We dug into this dish enjoying this soulful dish that spoke to us with its authenticity and well-executed cooking and flavors. This was both tasty and soul-stirring at the same time, especially for my eating companion.
Our second entrée was Musli Chicken which was recommended by our waiter. The chicken breast was oven baked with a mound of sweet onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and the exotic pickled lemon, ubiquitous in this North African region. The cut of poultry was still moist, flavorful from the yellow sauce that was savory and slightly citrusy from the use of the pickled lemon that also added some brininess. Soft thick slices of the lemon further enhanced this unique flavor profile, allowing this diner to add it with each bite of chicken, which satisfied this reviewer who enjoys pickles of all kinds. The side of rice was a strong co-actor with its strong perfume of cardamom, and savoriness from shallots, punctuated with bits of browned pasta looking like orzo. This dish is akin to the Lemon Chicken Tagine which I reviewed in another Moroccan restaurant last year, but the cooking style was distinctively different. Unfortunately, the side potato wedges were slightly undercooked, but they were at the same time savory from the tangy sauce. A single cooked green hot pepper, looking like a baby zucchini but unrecognizable to me, was an interesting touch that only confirmed to me that heat spice is an integral part of this North African cuisine, unlike its neighbor Morocco.
Even though we were quite sated from the appetizers and main courses, we did not finish everything on our dishes as we had been eyeing the pastries sitting on the counter from the moment we walked in. We ordered a plateful of all the different treats displayed and we were glad for having done so. Makrouch is made with date puree covered by a crumbly nutty dough, soaked with a not-too-sweet syrup perfumed with orange blossom water, and dotted with fragrant sesame seeds. On the first bite, my friend remarked that this was a better exotic version of Figs Newton, and I concurred with him. Another triangular pastry made with pistachio and walnuts was packed with a compact nut mixture, sweetened by the same syrup as above, and flakey from the outer shell of phyllo dough – this was my favorite since I’m nutty over pistachio. The last was Baklava, which I did not expect any different from any other versions that I’ve had before. But this one was nut-packed with barely any hint of the phyllo dough separating the layers. What I appreciated from all the desserts was they were not too sweet, and we were told that they were house-made on site. Each bite of these sweet delights only pointed to the hands of a skillful pastry maker and my kudos to him or her.
Taste of Tunisia is a hidden gem of a restaurant (a common comment from other online reviewers) in a sea of other eating establishments in the busy Arlington area. The dishes that are served here speak of a culinary tradition that is worth exploring and that point towards a knowledgeable kitchen steeped in this cuisine – the sight of an old man behind the stove somehow was quite reassuring for me. Do not be put off by the small space and lack of a plush setting. But after a meal there, the wonderful food and desserts make up for such a lack. In this instance, you cannot judge the food by its cover.