Swagged from the ceiling, 34 Berber lamps fling tentacles of light. Their collective candlepower is insufficient for the hapless diner to detect the color of the walls or, crucially, read the menu without angling it back and forth. Worse, narrow metal chairs torture butts any wider than Kate Moss’s (hint: hang one cheek over the side, switch every five minutes). Yet though my initial impulse was to bolt from Le Souk, I couldn’t resist staying once I discovered that the chef is Tunisian, and the menu an interesting mix of North African fare.
You might as well be sitting in Tunis’s Old Medina once you dig into ajja merguez ($6), a delicious poach of lamb sausages in a fragrant, brick-red sauce subtly laced with cumin. In the middle floats a runny egg like the sun rising over the ruins of Carthage. Indeed, one of the principal characteristics of Tunisian food is the incessant use of eggs—even slices of pizza bought along Tunis’s modern Avenue de France are topped with sliced egg. Thus, I was disappointed with Le Souk’s brik ($6.50). While the Tunisian original is a meal-size filo box stuffed with potato, tuna, and undercooked egg—a source of mirth for your companions as you bite into it and yolk splats on your shirt—this version is, alas, a trio of dainty pita triangles enclosing a niggling schmear of spuds and capers on the usual boring bed of baby lettuce.
The first time I tried Le Souk’s Moroccan chicken tagine ($12) I was similarly disappointed. While the kitchen got high marks for cooking and serving the concoction in a genuine ceramic tagine, the stew itself was greasy and bland. But a few weeks later it was vastly improved, dotted with brined baby lemons so flavorful that we kept nibbling them after the bird was gone. Lamb tagine (less meat, also $12) was a similar hit, perfumed with prunes and boasting a strongly flavored shank, making it about as close to authentic as you’re likely to find in New York. There’s nothing to compare with hoisting the conical lid and being assailed by cinnamon-mutton funk. And wonder of wonders, the side of couscous was moist but not clumpy, as if someone had been paying obsessive attention to it the way they do in North Africa.
Many of the better entrées are also cooked in tagines, including an Egyptian vegetable stew called bourma ($11), which charms with its odd collection of vegetables like bamia—baby dried okras that you can find threaded on long strings at Middle Eastern markets such as Kalustyan’s. Wearing a necklace of them to Le Souk could be quite a fashion statement. Another oddity is pure invention: Israeli couscous paella ($14), richly furnished with shrimp, clams, chicken, mussels, and sausage deposited on the tapioca-size grains that Israelis prefer.
Once you get used to the darkness, the cluttered dining room isn’t so bad—and it did provide moments of hilarity, such as when we picked apart the awful Muscovy duck breast ($16), wondering whether the skanky hunks of meat in fig sauce really were mallard. Holding the pieces of flesh up in shafts of lantern light, we argued like pirates, till the waiter appeared and courtesy dictated that we fall silent. We watched aghast as, squinting in the dim light, he mistakenly emptied the rest of our decent bottle of Italian pinot grigio ($22) into my half-filled water glass. When we pointed out his error, he simply smirked, shrugged, and walked off.