Take a stroll along Tunis’s tree-lined Avenue Bourguiba around sunset as the populace is hurrying home from work or out to theaters and coffee shops and see round skillets filled with bubbling fat pushed out onto the sidewalk. Next to them robed men spread sheets of flaky warka pastry, twice the thickness of phyllo, adding a filling of canned tuna, parsley, and a pair of cracked eggs before the pastry is folded into a triangle, fried golden brown, wrapped in white paper, then delivered into the hands of a hungry patron for the equivalent of an American dollar. The happy diner lifts the package to his lips, and as he bites, yolk squirts all over his newly washed djellaba.
I’d never had a brik in New York worth a damn till I stepped into Nomad. This new East Village restaurant can claim an Algerian owner, a Tunisian chef, and a pair of talented Moroccan cooks, who turn out a North African menu nearly absolute in its authenticity. The sand-colored dining room is faintly limned with cave paintings, upon which Moroccan sconces of metal and tinted glass broadcast colorful rays of light. When the brik ($7) arrived it looked promising. But biting into it I became ecstatic. The crisp pastry was jammed with potatoes, tinned tuna, eggs, and capers. My only regret: The yolks had been cooked hard. As consolation, I got to leave the restaurant with a clean djellaba.
Other worthy appetizers include Egyptian fava bean stew ($5)—here spelled, in a torrent of vowels, “fooul”—and a trio of lemony and garlicky Moroccan salads ($7): carrot, beet, and bakoula (spinach). Less appealing are chicken briwats, triangular Moroccan pastries stuffed with shredded chicken. My complaint? The briwats are inferior to the bastilla ($14), a round pie six inches in diameter with the same chicken stuffing, which arrives handsomely crosshatched with sugar and cinnamon. There’s also a seafood bastilla that forgoes the sugary topping; veined with baby shrimp and dodgy bits of squid, it’s not nearly as good. In Morocco, the pie is usually made with pigeon. For some reason, New Yorkers are averse to consuming pigeons—unless we call them squabs, of course.
The heart of the menu is a list of grills, couscouses, and tajines. The best of the tajines features prunes and an entire lamb shank ($15), cooked to surreal density. But the standard chicken-lemon-olive tajine is bland and sometimes tastes reheated. Even in North Africa, couscouses can be dull as dishwater. Seen in that light, the ones at Nomad aren’t so bad. Among grills, the twisted pile of merguez sausages—a favorite in Tunisia—is the superlative choice, alternating sucker punches of lamb and cumin.
One of the best surprises at Nomad is the wine list, which showcases a pair of bargain Algerian reds. With all the fundamentalist religious troubles, it’s a wonder that the country still makes wine at all. A half-century ago, Algeria was the eighth- largest producer in the world, though its rough-and-tumble reds were often blended with the more timid wines of Provence to make roses and red blends. From the High Atlas Mountains, Atlasian Cellars’ Cuvee du President ($22) is proud inheritor of French winemaking tradition. Fruity and oaky, it can’t be beat when matched with the lamb and prune tajine. But then, everything goes good with prunes, right?