The cheerful, round-faced proprietor met us in the doorway, clasping his hands in front of him. “We’re serving the fast-breaking meal of Ramadan,” he said without a trace of discouragement. “Please come in and sit down!”
Early Internet reports about Walima were promising. Moroccan is one of our most difficult-to-find cuisines. Yet the cuisine is among the world’s tastiest, making subtle use of powdered ginger, cinnamon, saffron, and cumin, while baptizing dishes with orange- and rose-flower waters. Because the country lies at the end of spice-trading routes, spices are treated with more care and reverence than in other cuisines—like Ethiopian, say, or Indian, in which they’re thrown in by the fistful. Luckily, we have Bay Ridge’s Le Maison du Couscous to show us how good Moroccan can be. But, despite a large Arab population, Astoria has never had a really great Moroccan place, or one that lasted very long.
A friend and I took our places at a two-top in the corner dining room, which had big picture windows looking across 31st Avenue at a blue neon sign that shouted INSURANCE. Every available space was decorated with handsome cooking vessels, including a filigreed couscousiere, pear-shaped teapots, and a painted tajine—the conical clay vessel in which the stews called tajines are braised. The first component of the Muslim fast-breaker was already in place: a small plate that held a boiled egg, a pair of perfectly aligned dates, and a crumpled brown pastry called shebbakia, dusted with sesame seeds and deluged with honey. As we began scarfing with our fingers, the proprietor offered a medical explanation for the sweet Saharan treats: “After not eating all day, we need these things to get our blood sugar going.”
Next came harira, the vegetarian soup associated with Ramadan, but available much of the year ($3.50). This rendition exhibited a creamy tomato base in which a few strands of thin pasta squiggled, along with a modest collection of chickpeas and lentils. Ginger added a sweet note. Next, a waitress in the traditional head scarf poured us milk from a pitcher as the proprietor looked on. He was clearly interested in our reaction to what was being set before us. “The milk is flavored with jasmine,” he enthused.
Then a pair of pancakes appeared, the round one smeared with honey, the square one glowing with a clarified herb butter called smen. Both pancakes were dense and chewy, providing a workout for our jaws. Another waiter came by with a steaming pot and poured us each a cup of coffee, then added warm milk from a white pitcher. Next, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice materialized.
Our fast-breaker had come to an end, but we couldn’t help but notice that other patrons were delightedly ordering extra food. We were more curious than hungry, but the minute the waiter mentioned chicken tajines ($12.95), we jumped at the suggestion. As soon as he doffed the ceramic lid, a wave of saffron swept over us; a good-size half chicken crowded into the narrow receptacle like a mummy in a sarcophagus. We also exhumed green olives and lemon peels—which the menu rather grandly called “chef’s lemon preserve.”
In the weeks after Ramadan, we made more pilgrimages to Walima. The beef tajine proved even better than the chicken, a sweet clotted mass of browned onions with prunes laid across the top, each one decorated with a single toasted almond. The meaty bones oozed marrow. While I’d rather eat desert sand than most couscouses in town, this joint managed to keep the chickpea-studded semolina moist, and whether you select beef, chicken, or vegetarian (all $12.95), the sculpted mound comes decorated with semi-firm vegetables symmetrically arranged. Hey, Walima, why no lamb?
The restaurant seems proudest of its seafood bastilla ($16.95), a pile-up of paper-thin warka pastry filled with seafood, which achieves an unfortunate texture something like canned tuna. Sadly, the top is not criss-crossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, as is the traditional chicken or pigeon bastilla.
But Walima proved a fine place for snacking and appetizing. My crew loved the babaganoush—a dish not native to Morocco—though I thought it a bit mayonnaisey. The warka-based pastries called briwats ($6.95) are configured like lead pipes rather than the traditional triangles, and come stuffed with chicken, seafood, or vegetables. “I love these,” Scooter enthused. “Yeah,” I replied uncharitably, “that’s because they taste like spring rolls from your neighborhood Chinese.”