Morocco, as seen by candlelight
THE bestila arrives in a haze of sugar and spices, a round chicken and almond pie encased in fragile buttered layers of filo dough and covered in a drift of powdered sugar crisscrossed with trails of cinnamon. Take a bite: This is the genius of Moroccan cooking, savory chicken suffused with exotic spices against that shock of sweetness. In Morocco, it’s traditional to snatch off pieces of the steaming hot pie with your fingers, but if we like, our waiter says, he’d be glad to cut the bestila for us.
With five of us seated at a round table cluttered with candles, bread and wine glasses, it seems easier to let him do it. The bestila disappears in seconds in quick, greedy bites. Delicious.
At the tiny Tagine in Beverly Hills, Morocco is a state of mind. Think Rick’s place from “Casablanca” updated for the 21st century, with a trio of savvy young owners standing in for the Humphrey Bogart character. One of them, wearing a fedora, sits at a back table, doing the accounts on his laptop while cool jazz -- Chet Baker -- plays on the sound system. On second thought, maybe it’s the wine list he’s working on. Christopher Angulo used to be a sommelier at Water Grill; Ryan Gosling, a movie actor and another owner, is our waiter and the front of the house. The chef Abdessamad “Ben” Benameur is the third partner, and the only Moroccan. The three met working at Water Grill.
Angulo, Gosling and Benameur took over Mamounia, the previous Moroccan restaurant at this locale, a year and a half ago, revamped the menu to reflect Benameur’s lighter, California-inspired cooking and remodeled the formerly kitschy space to give it a hipper, more modern sensibility.
The decor evokes Morocco without getting folkloric about it. The banquettes in the single dining room, which had been low, have been raised to normal height and covered in soft velvets. Age-mottled mirrors reflect the room in a dreamy haze. Giant brass-trimmed glass lanterns are mounted high on the ceiling and Edison lightbulbs with glowing filaments dangle in neat rows. Smaller filigreed lanterns cast lacy patterns on the walls, and on the tables, candles flicker in colored glass holders.
It’s sexy and dark. At one table, a trio of young women in sparkly tops catch up with one another; nearby, an older couple on a date sips wine between bites of carrot salad perfumed with orange flower water and preserved lemon. Slowly, through the evening, the latter two edge closer together, which must mean things are going well. Whoever suggested Tagine as a meeting place gets a gold star. The food is good, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly, and at least on this weekday night, it’s quiet enough to talk, even when a birthday party a dozen strong arrives to celebrate sometime after 9.
A step removed
THOUGH the lights of Robertson Boulevard are still just visible through the tall papyrus planted in front of the window, we feel very far away from the bustle farther north on Robertson with all the boutiques and celebrity sightings. Tagine registers as something secret with only a blue-painted door and an ornate lantern on a small table outside to mark the spot.
As soon as you sit down, bread arrives in a coiled basket with a small bowl of hummus and some wonderful oil-cured olives spiked with preserved lemon and harissa, the typical North African hot sauce. Until the recent departure of the bread baker, Tagine’s bread was a Moroccan round loaf. Now it’s triangles of pita, tucked under a cloth to keep them warm.
The easiest way to experience the intricate flavors of Moroccan cuisine here is with the set price menu. At $32 a person for a sumptuous seven-course meal, it’s a terrific bargain. You’ll also be able to sample most of the first courses and a selection of the mains if everyone at your table of four or five chooses something different. On weekdays, the chef also offers an a la carte menu, as well as daily specials, which give him a chance to experiment and vary the dishes.
At one point, an array of salads will arrive, to be eaten almost as spreads for the pita. There’s a discrete mound of diced cucumbers seasoned with lemon and cumin, soft, smoky eggplant dusky with paprika, a spicy cooked spinach salad, and that enticing carrot salad.
One night, the special appetizer is briwat, small filo packets filled with shrimp, vermicelli and scallops. The flavors just dance across your tongue.
The namesake tagine, Morocco’s eccentric terra-cotta casserole that’s used to cook the dish of the same name, arrives and the waiter whips off the conical top to reveal three different grilled appetizers -- a kefta (like a grilled sausage) on top of a svelte cauliflower puree, a moist chicken khotban (grilled, skewered chicken) on a white bean puree, and shrimp khotban on smoky eggplant.
Take a bite of this and that. Served family style, it’s the equivalent of Middle Eastern meze. I love the interplay of flavors, the way every bite is different.
A subtle difference
I’VE never understood why Moroccan cuisine isn’t more of a hit here in Southern California. It’s just a shift in key or tone from the ever-popular Mediterranean cuisines that dominate the scene. Maybe it’s the belly dancer torture (here there’s none of that), but I think it’s also because at some Moroccan restaurants, everything tastes too similar. Every salad seems to have the same sweet spicing; tagines taste as if they came from one big pot with only the main ingredient rotated according to what’s ordered.
Plus, it’s not the kind of cuisine that’s easily adapted to a la carte. It’s based on building flavor into the food with slow braising in earthenware pots. Lemons pickled in a spice-laden brine are an essential ingredient, and to make couscous properly takes time and patience.
At Tagine, chef Benameur subtly varies his spicing from dish to dish and skillfully weaves flavors through the set meal with a light, sure hand. He also keeps the sweetness in check, so it recurs as a haunting flute note among brassier, bolder flavors.
His lamb tagine, made with lamb shank, is so tender you could practically eat it with a spoon. You can order it either scribbled with a little honey, or else escorted by an array of earthy vegetables. Cornish game hen arrives with succulent figs.
One of the best tagines is made with shrimp marinated in six spices, sauteed in the juices from roasting potatoes and sweet peppers, and flavored with charmoula, a mix of Hungarian sweet paprika, cumin, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil and Meyer lemon. And a special of striped bass rubbed with charmoula is excellent. Of course, every meal comes with a mound of fluffy couscous too.
Desserts are generally diamond-shaped baklava, served with sweet mint tea poured with a flourish from a silver teapot held high above the gold-rimmed tea glasses. If you prefer it unsweetened, it’s no problem, says the waiter with a smile.
Light and delicious, the set price menu at Tagine is perfect for celebrating a birthday or any other occasion because you eat family style at a no-surprises price. The food is exotic, but delicate, so it has a wide appeal.
And the a la carte weekday menu means you can stop in for a dish or two and hang out, listening to the music, visiting with friends.
In the heart of Beverly Hills, Tagine is a delightful oasis. You have only to step into the frame to feel far away. Oh, and come hungry.
Location: 132 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 360-7535; www.taginecuisine.com.
Ambience: Charming Moroccan boite with velvet banquettes, Moroccan lanterns, flickering candles, and a cool jazz soundtrack. Small and intimate, without the usual Moroccan shtick.
Service: Relaxed and informal.
Price: Appetizers, $6 to $14; main courses, $12 to $21; dessert, $6; set price menu, $32 per person; vegetarian version, $27 per person.
Best dishes: Traditional salads, shrimp and scallop briwat, grilled kefta, bestila, braised lamb shank with honey, Cornish game hen, sea bass with charmoula, shrimp tagine.
Wine list: Modest one-page list that includes a Moroccan red, and some pricey Cabernets. Corkage, $15.
Best table: The corner table in the window.
Details: Open from 6 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays. Wine and beer. Street parking. There are plans to open for lunch beginning in mid-February.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
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