Eat Your Peas
Marshaled on the counter, the pastries possess poetic names. Kaab ghozal ("gazelle horns") are crescent cookies crammed with rose-scented almonds; the coiled pastry ropes stenciled like graph paper with powdered sugar and cinnamon are m'hanncha ("serpents"); while chebakia ("ribbons") denote deep-brown pastry strips glistening with honey, heaped and tangled like nuclear DNA. A selection of these goodies (assortment varies) is $4.50, and you can wash them down with a pot of well-sugared mint tea ($2.50).
La Maison du Couscous is a new Moroccan café on a quiet side street in Bay Ridge, where tables spill out onto the sidewalk and the unaffected decor makes you feel like you're in Casablanca (the city, not the movie). Instead of channeling the country's imperial past, the menu frankly acknowledges the happy mixture of Arabic, Berber, and French influences that enliven Morocco's modern urban landscape. Thus baguettes, rather than flatbreads or sides of couscous, often accompanied tajines when I visited, and the so-called Moroccan coffee turned out to be café au lait.
Though La Maison is a great place to sit and yack for hours over a pot of tea and a plateful of pastries, full meals are also served in an interior that's half display counter and half kitchen. Here a pair of talented and colorfully scarved cooks shuttle between bubbling pots and prep areas heaped with fresh vegetables and tender cuts of halal meat, and the earthenware tajines lined up on the counter are not just for show. A full meal begins with a selection of brilliantly spiced vegetable appetizers. Meslala ($3) is a revelationchopped bitter green olives mellowed with olive oil and parsley. Then there's zaalouk, a tasty variation of the eggplant moosh found throughout the Mediterranean, and bakoula, a heap of cool spinach inflected with lemon juice and barely detectable olives.
The soups make less exciting starters, ditto the briwats, tinier-than-usual triangles of flaky pastryalthough the fish version, rife with vermicelli and tiny octopus tentacles, suffers less in reheating than the others. While prepared with considerable competence, the namesake couscouses are bland compared to the wonderful tajines ($7.95 each). It's in these long-cooked recipes that La Maison really takes off. When you glance at the menu, one seems like a hard sell"tajine of lamb w/artichokes and green peas." Who wants a dish awash in peas? And when it materializes, your worst fears are confirmed, as the lifted lid reveals a vast sea of green. But wait a minutethere are also two formidable lamb shanks and a substantial load of carefully pared artichoke bottoms. One taste and you're hooked, as you begin frantically ferrying peas to your mouth so they don't loose the gloss of rich broth, redolent of evenings in Marrakech's Djemâa el Fna, sitting in a rooftop restaurant relishing a palm-dotted sunset.
But enough reverie. Every tajine I've tried at La Maison has been just as good. I'd have to say my favorite remains chicken with onions and raisins, wherein the onions are caramelized to a deep and fluid brown, their pungent flavor penetrating every cubic inch of poultry, and the raisins have returned to the size and flavor of their parental grapes (though one fellow diner remarked "too sweet"). For vegetable lovers, the tajine tafrawatt features a broad range paired with either chicken or lamb, and you'll find a bounty of summer squashes, pumpkins, and eggplant added to the usual carrots and potatoes. Also estimable is tajine de poisson, a wickedly oily concoction in which tomatoes and fish turn the sauce into something reminiscent of West African palm oil. Demonstrating, perhaps, that the Moroccan sense of taste flows not only from France and Arabia, but from sub-Saharan Africa as well.
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