Mazagan RestaurantOne evening after dinner with my usual Friday group in a Japanese restaurant in Arlington, VA, we noticed that a shop space a few doors down had been renovated into a new eating establishment, a conversion from its nondescript former life. A quick peek through its storefront indicated that it was now a Moroccan eatery to which we exclaimed that we were going to make it a point to pay it visit. With the daunting thought that a number of places serving this North African cuisine had closed their shutters in the latest economic downspiral, we were eager to discover what this newbie had to offer.  So, over the last weekend, my groupies and I sauntered through its doors. . . . . Chakchouka, Zaalouk and Bakoula Olives and Moroccan BreadWalking in Mazagan, one notices the space with its open concept with the dining area in the front, a bar to the left, a hookah lounge to the back and an open kitchen across from the smoking den.  We took our seats around a round table with one half protected by a curvy banquette, lowly lit by some Moroccan-inspired modern lamps – every decor detail had a nod to North Africa without being stuck in the traditional.  For our appetizers, I chose to go the traditional route to ascertain how the kitchen handles the staples.  The first was a trio of cold vegetable dips listed as Taste of Morocco. Chakchouka consists of wood-grilled green peppers and tomatoes mixed with olive oil, hand ground cumin and paprika, exuding its slightly bitter green pepper vegetal notes, some grill smokiness, and tomato sweetness.  Bakoula is listed as sautéed spinach with olives, preserved lemons, garlic, cumin, paprika and olive oil. The spinach was fresh-tasting studded with a whole clove of caramelized garlic, but missing the listed spice flavors which would have added another note of interest; the slices of preserved lemons stood out as not wanting to join the spinach’s company, thus seemed out-of-place.  Zaâlouk is made of wood-grilled eggplant and tomatoes with olive oil, hand ground cumin and paprika, which I quite enjoyed the smoky vegetable marrying with the spices and slightly sweet tomato, this combination reminding me of Italian Caponata.  Overall, this trio was well-executed and a wonderful way to open up the meal, albeit a bit pricey for the small amounts.  The complementary spiced green olives, grassy olive oil, and Moroccan bread were of excellent quality which we couldn’t stop munching on. Harira SoupA couple of dining companions decided to open their meal with the classic Moroccan soup – Harira.  The menu list it as made with tomato, lentil, lamb cubes and chickpea.  The bowl arrived steaming with a fairly thick soup in it.  After allowing the orderers a few spoonfuls, I was curious to trying a few sips from it.  What I could taste from the soup was the gestalt of an alchemy of cooking all the different ingredients producing something that was delicate without any of the ingredients exerting their unique personality.  This was a very tasty sip that was beckoning me to continue tasting it either to figure out the subtle spice use in it or merely to savor this warming and soulful bowlful.  The use of grain was sufficient to give it body without it becoming porridge like.  A faint lemon juice note in the background further added interest and a balance to this slightly starchy soup.  This is an example of what good soup is, a final product that is savory and a transformation as the result of the chemistry of cooking the right ingredients. Chicken Bastilla Another standard fare from this cuisine is Bastilla.  The menu lists two types, chicken and seafood, the latter being a novelty for this diner.  However, I chose to go with the traditional version made with chicken, or pigeon in that North African country.  The “cake” arrived dressed with a fairly light sprinkling of powdered sugar punctuated by lines of cinnamon powder.  One cut into it revealed its true nature.  The phyllo dough was fully cooked but still a bit supple, an indication that it was not baked too long.  But it was the stuffing that was the appealing star with its moist finely shredded (very) chicken meat, a light sprinkling of fine bits of almond, and a hint of nutmeg permeating through the mixture.  What I appreciated about this sweet/savory mixture is that its savoriness was never detracted by the powdered sugar or the nuts, which has occurred in other versions that I have tasted with the heavy amounts of the sweet and equal amount of nuts.  Here, we have an exotic cake reminding you that it’s a savory appetizer with hints of sweet and spice.  The seafood version will indeed be on my order during my next visit in order to quell my curiosity of this untried stuffing. Chicken Tagine Mazagan RestaurantFor the main courses, everyone decided to go with the true-and-tested traditional dishes from this North African cuisine.  A couple of my dining mates went for the Chicken Tagine.  The dish arrived in the traditional earthenware, and its top was removed once placed on the table, letting steam escape after sitting on the charcoal grill visible from the dining room.  What was revealed was a bit of a surprise – bits of slow cooked chicken were topped with a sprinkling of french fries, which raised our curiosity since we were not used to it being served in this fashion.  A quick query to our waiter enlightened us that it was common for tagines to be served this way even though we were used to seeing potato and carrots as the dish’s usual partners.   A taste of my companion’s dish pointed towards fork-tender moist chicken cooked with preserved lemon and green olives, made yellow by cumin and slightly fragrant by a light use of spices.  Despite the other flavor elements, I found the dish slightly under-salted, but better less than more.  A slight resin-like after-note in the sauce was intriguing, and after biting into some preserved lemon, I realized that that flavor came from the citrus itself – that must be some super lemons with such a strong flavor in the rind.  However, I felt the spicing could have been a bit stronger to pull all the elements together and to keep my interest a bit longer.  Nevertheless, my friends truly enjoyed their dishes, notwithstanding the fries that soaked up all the flavors. Lamb Couscous Another diner’s entrée was Lamb Couscous.  A wonderful oval bowl arrived with a large mound of the pasta grain, with large chunks of lamb shank and large pieces of carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, and onion wedges sitting on top.  The chunks of lamb shank were moist and fork-tender that exuded a fresh taste with an interesting note akin to fresh leather, and by this, I mean it in a good way, reminding me of my youth when my father would order a whole kid lamb that was grilled in the yard for the annual office dinners that exuded similar qualities and flavor.  I just couldn’t get enough of this flavor along with the lamb’s tenderness.  The bed of couscous underneath was very decent, being fully cooked and moistened with the stock enriched by the meats and vegetables.  The pieces of vegetable appeared fully cooked since I did not have a chance to dig my fork into them.  My dining companion seemed very content with his order and he was making quite a dent on it.

After our savory courses, we inquired about the sweet offerings.  Everything on the menu was French-inspired desserts with the exception of the ubiquitous Baklava and Orange with Cinnamon, both of which I was very familiar with.  Despite not having a sweet ending, we were quite pleased with the cooking from this new kitchen, starting with the trio of cold vegetable dishes, the enticing Harira soup, the fairly well executed Chicken Tagine, and the as-good-as-it-gets Lamb Couscous.  With cooking this impressive a midst the swanky decor of this new space, I see my dining group and I coming back for more of their offerings.

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Taste of Tunisia

Taste of TunisiaThe 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.

Tunisian Mint TeaUpon 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.




Tunisian Tuna Egg Breek

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.

Taste of Tunisia Couscous

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.

Tunisian Musli Chicken

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.

Tunisian Pastries

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.

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Marrakesh P Street

Stairwell to the Blue Light. Note: The restaurant has changed management and name. Read about it – Marrakech.

A couple of weeks back, my BFF Kevin and I stepped into a new Moroccan restaurant in the Adams Morgan area to review its performance.  Simple verdict – disappointing.  The dishes were poorly cooked with barely edible stringy meat, the orders were mixed up, and the food was swimming in a pool of oil.  To make matters worse, Kevin got sick from the food for the next few days – poor bugger!

I was hoping that this visit was going to be en par with a recent visit to another Moroccan eatery in the Dupont Circle area.  Some friends and I had originally planned to have brunch in another location on the same street on a freezing Sunday afternoon.  After being told that the wait was around 40 minutes and in the state of famish that we were in, we hauled ourselves down the street and walked through the doors of Marrakesh P Street Restaurant.  It is located on the former spot of a seedy gay bar that was renowned for its campy drag shows.    However, with some dramatic cosmetic transformation (yes, pun intended), the location has taken on a new look and feel, far from its former life.

Great Moroccan Opener Walking into the foyer, you are immediately whisked away to North Africa with its terra-cotta colored and tiled walls, plush deep-red velvet cushions on a sitting area, and exotic brass ware everywhere including the perforated overhead light fixtures.   The dining rooms are divided into the lower casual eating section and the upper “blue room” reserved for dinners.  Small mosaic fountains and large urns are placed around the space evoking a sense of distant exoticism and beauty.   Perusing the menu, the dishes are divided into simple and understandable sections: Hot Tapas, Cold Tapas, Couscous, Tagines, and Brochettes.

Harira Soup

It is rare that you will come across a restaurant that is open for lunch on Sunday and offering a 3-course lunch special ($12.95) on the weekend.  The first course is a choice of Harira soup or a salad – I chose the soup, suitable for the cold weather.   This traditional soup is made with tomato, lentils, chickpeas, bulgur wheat (I suspect), saffron, cilantro and ginger.  With the first spoonful, the broth tasted rich and complex from the spices and herbs, while the grains and beans added body and heartiness to this wonderful starter – just the perfect entrance to this exotic cuisine.

Combo Salad

On another visit, I decided to try a medley of cold tapas as the starter – the Combo Salad.  It arrived with spinach that had been cooked with garlic and preserved lemon; roasted eggplant cooked with fresh tomato, garlic and cilantro; and a carrot salad prepared with garlic, cilantro, and preserved lemon.  This trio was very flavorful, and the dish points to a kitchen that takes great care in its dish preparation.  There was a level of soulfulness in these simple vegetables that matched perfectly with the crusty yet fluffy Moroccan traditional bread that provided the willing backdrop and vehicle to the savory vegetable dips.

Chicken Bastilla

For the hot tapas, I decided to go the traditional route and order one of Morocco’s most recognizable dishes – Chicken Pastry or Bastilla.  Baked Phylo dough has been stuffed with a mixture of chicken, egg, and almonds, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon.    This concoction is a study of contrast between the crispy dough and the rather moist filling, the sweet and savory flavors, with the hint of cinnamon adding a certain exotic earthiness to this appetizer.   I have eaten various versions of this dish over the years and although the stuffing was a bit dry (the traditional use of pigeon would make it more moist), it was definitely well-made and worth every bite that I enjoyed.

Chicken Lemon Olive Tagine

Moroccan cooking is renowned for its Tagine dishes that have been cooked in domed clay pots.  With this in mind, I decided to order the Chicken Tagine that was part of the 3-course lunch special (the other choice was Vegetable Couscous).  The breast was cooked in a sauce that was flavored with pickled lemons, olives, and a cornucopia of exotic spices that made the sauce very flavorful and delectable, enough for me to wipe up every drop with the spongy bread.   The slices of pickled lemon rind and olives added the brininess and fruit-like notes to the already flavor-packed dish.  I have had this dish before in other restaurants and this rendition was perhaps one of the best that I have eaten.

Couscous Royal

For the Couscous section, my dining companion ordered the Couscous Royal.  Sitting on a bed of the perfectly steamed pasta grains were spicy Merguez lamb sausage, chicken, lamb, zucchini, squash, carrots, chickpeas and fava beans.  The pieces of meat cooked in a tasty broth were fork-tender, along with the well-cooked large pieces of sweet vegetables that were quite soft but not mushy.  A few forkfuls from this dish confirmed to me that the kitchen really cares about the cooking and is skilful in preparing these traditional Moroccan dishes.  This is another must-order from the menu along with the Chicken Tagine.

Fruit Cocktail

Mint Tea
The final course for the lunch special was a Fruit Cocktail.  In most places, such dessert would be a banal mix of fruits that would leave the taster rather nonplussed.   However, this restaurant’s version was a mixture of fresh cantaloupe, melon, pineapple, sweet strawberries, and plump blackberries.   It is indeed refreshing to have a fresh fruit salad that has been slightly sweetened by a light syrup perfumed by a heady orange blossom water, especially in the midst of winter.   The traditional dessert of Moroccan pastries were not available during the last visit, but I have enjoyed such dessert fare there in the past and the sweets were good.  A cup of the customary sweet mint tea was also a perfect end to this wonderful meal.

The dishes that I tasted at Marrakesh P Street Restaurant were a far cry from those that I tried at the other eatery mentioned in the opening paragraph, which will remain nameless and unreviewed.   However, here the dishes were flavor-packed, skillfully executed, and full of Moroccan tasty exoticness.   With this Northern African soul food, this restaurant managed to stir my taste buds and whole being with its traditional offerings that Moroccan cuisine is known for, very much like a belly dancer with her exotic, smooth, and alluring gyrations.  But unlike its former life as a drag show venue, this restaurant truly delivers the real McCoy, at least food wise.  I will indeed be revisiting this place in the future for more of the real stuff found in its wonderful authentic offerings.

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