Our dapper waiter breezes in with a sand-colored jug, doffs the makeshift foil top, tips it over, and cascades a bony brown liquid into the bowl. Heavily scented with preserved lemons and sweet spices, the beef rib tangia ($19.50) is so well cooked that the rich stringy meat detaches from the bones, which are as white as if bleached in the sun. A dune of couscous rises alongside, finer grained than the boxed variety and almost nutty in flavor.
Known as a tangia, the jug is shaped like a Roman amphora. The long-cooked dish served therein, also known as a tangia, is said to be the preferred supper of Moroccan bachelors. The vessel is loaded with meat and spices, then dragged along to the hammam, or ritual bath, where it’s placed in the ashes of the hearth. When the single guy emerges hours later—after an elaborate routine that includes hot and cold baths, steam, and jabbering with pals while smoking a hookah—his supper is ready.
In this dish and several others, Zitoune has accurately captured the desert and oasis flavors that make Moroccan one of the world’s most admired cuisines. While other places in town offer only a couple of predictable tajines, Zitoune showcases many, freely embroidering on conventional combos of ingredients, while deploying precious spices like cinnamon, mace, powdered ginger, and, less traditionally, star anise, in sparing quantities. A tribute to last year’s trendiest meat, veal cheek tajine ($17.50), deposits little meat pillows in a sauce that incorporates prunes and ras el hanout, a spice mixture that’s as close to Punjabi as Moroccan gets. Other tajines that have been on the menu at various times, in a controlled orgy of experimentation, include monkfish matched with saffron and sweet potatoes (interesting), well-browned cornish hen with olives and lemons (good), lamb with quince on Israeli couscous (great), and salmon kofta with tomatoes and olives (yawn).
The best dish on the menu is the subtlest: seven-vegetable couscous. As the ceramic lid is removed, you see a yellow mound of grainy semolina with vegetables pinwheeled on top, predominantly pumpkin, carrot, plum tomato, and chickpeas. A sauce boat carries a rich vegetable broth, to be poured over the dish at intervals to renew the moistness, and there’s also a crock of the fiery condiment harissa. Appropriately, the couscous headlines, paradoxically moist yet unclumpy, the result of a process that, according to our waiter, sees the semolina dampened, rubbed between the palms, and steamed in a couscousiére three times, just as it’s done at home. He also mentioned that there really is a Moroccan mom in the kitchen overseeing things.
Another of Zitoune’s accomplishments is the rehabilitation of b’stilla, New York’s most abused Moroccan dish. On home turf, this fez-shaped pie is constructed of pastry sheets called warkha, twice as thick as filo, interleaved with crushed almonds, scrambled egg, and pigeon, with the top latticed in cinnamon and powdered sugar. The chicken breast invariably used in America just doesn’t hack it. Zitoune substitutes shredded duck instead, dense and dark and flavorful. And the sugar and cinnamon, rather than seeming absurdly sweet as they do in the chicken version, perfectly complement the richness of the meat.
Another warkha construction, however, is less successful. Zitoune’s briks are made by folding a few pastry leaves over an uncooked filling of olives, tomatoes, and parsley that seems more like salad than stuffing. It also renders the warkha soggy. And as anyone who’s seen the Star Wars trilogy knows, there’s nothing angrier than a soggy warkha.