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Morocco Bound 

Tajine moves uptown from the Tenderloin, where venerable Marrakech still pleases

Wednesday, Jul 18 2007
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When tiny Tajine opened in the Tenderloin in 2005, people who managed to squeeze into its miniature space on a gritty block of Jones were delighted by both its delicious food and its amazingly gentle prices. The well-cooked Moroccan fare issued forth from an entirely open kitchen that left enough room for only four cramped tables for two. Tajine's recent move to a much larger storefront on Polk, more than tripling its capacity, so excited us — especially the prospect of being able to eat there in a large group, impossible in the old location — that we invited an entire apartment full of five young film students to join us there for dinner. Alas, only two were able to make the trip.

But we were determined to eat as much as we could, so we started with both the irresistibly named "mosaic of salad" (i.e., tastes of all four salads on the menu) and a chicken bastilla to share.

The salads were freshly made, colorful, and attractively arranged. There was shalada, diced tomatoes, green onions, and minced parsley, simply dressed with olive oil and lemon. Two others were sautéed in olive oil: zaalouk, slightly smoky, suave eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley; and taktouka, chopped green bell peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. My favorite was the sweet chopped beet salad, garnished with sliced hard-boiled egg.

The bastilla, a round pastry of filo dough that crackles when you bite into it, was filled with a crumbly stuffing of minced chicken, ground almonds, and scrambled egg, and topped with a light dusting of powdered sugar and a suspicion of cinnamon. It's easy to eat.

We went on to one of the place's signature tajines, juicy meat-and-vegetable stews cooked in a conical clay pot. We chose the dajaj mequalli, falling-off-the-bone chicken, perfumed with slivers of tangy preserved lemon and olives, awash in the cooking liquids that kept the fowl singularly moist. Feeling in a kingly mood, we commanded both the brochette royale and the royal couscous. The brochette included three skewered kebabs: lamb, chicken, and kufta, a fresh sausage made of seasoned ground lamb. It came with more zaalouk and shalada; some limp, oily, but compulsively edible floury french fries; and a bowl of excellent harira, lentil soup, wafting cumin. The chicken was still moist, the kufta well spiced with garlic, coriander, and the ever-present cumin. The couscous, a surprisingly small hillock, considering the fluffy wheat grains are probably the most inexpensive ingredient of the dish, was topped with tender stewed vegetables — carrots, zucchini, squash, potatoes, and chickpeas — moistened with their cooking liquid. It was crowned with three skewered meats: again, the lamb and chicken kebabs, and merguez, a peppery beef sausage, which popped gratifyingly in the mouth after you bit through its slightly resilient casing. The merguez was yummy, but I missed the more traditional stewed-meat version of couscous that was served at the old Tajine. The rerun of the kebabs felt too similar to the other dish we ordered.

But we'd had an excellent dinner; we lingered over hot sweetened mint tea and a plate of assorted pastries, including baklava, honey cake, and my favorite, Tajine's homemade shepakia, a candy-like nutty pastry perfumed with orange blossom water.

The owners had assured me that they'd kept the same prices — not quite the case, though they might have crept up over the past few years since my initial visit. When I dined at the old place, the highest ticket was $11.95 for the brochette royale, now $15.95 (and the royal couscous runs a buck more). But here you can dine in comfort, under rows of beautiful Moroccan lanterns that provide most of the decoration in an otherwise simple room.

Despite the higher prices, and the sad simplification of the couscous dish, Tajine is quite a find: an authentic little place that turns out tasty versions of traditional Moroccan dishes. Here you can feast on several courses or pop in for a salad, a spicy bowl of harira soup, or a snack — they do kebab sandwiches, with grilled chicken, lamb, kufta, or merguez tucked inside crusty rolls. But caveat emptor: Tajine is cash only.

The décor is part of the draw at Marrakech, which has been pulling them in on O'Farrell for more than a dozen years. You enter past a quietly gurgling tiled wall fountain. The dimly lit main room is lined with deep, low banquettes and pillows made from velvety Moroccan rugs, and dotted with equally low tables made of round brass trays. Additional seating is provided by leather hassocks, which they'll change out for stools if you wish. A couple of side rooms can be reserved for large parties.

When we arrived for our 7 p.m. dinner, the only other inhabitants of the room were a family of three, whose lively toddler largely ignored his high chair in favor of wandering and dancing around the room. Luckily we found him adorable. Luckily we like kids, because it appeared to be children's night out at Marrakech. Eventually we were joined by a mom and her young son and daughter, a father-and-son duo, and a celebratory Indian party of 20 with a beautiful large-eyed baby girl who bonded with Dancing Boy. There were also a couple of entirely grown-up tables of four, all accommodated nicely by the spaces.

We were absorbed in studying the prix-fixe menu: You get three set appetizers, followed by your choice from among 15 entrées, including several varieties of couscous, eight stewed lamb and chicken dishes, and shish kebab, ending with baklava and mint tea, or you can have an entrée for only $10 less.

First, there's the pleasant ritual of washing your hands under a stream of lukewarm perfumed water, poured by a server from a chased brass pitcher into a similarly decorated pot. The starters included another good version of harira, dark lentil soup with bay and cumin; a platter of two salads, a salsa-like chop of tomatoes, onions, and green pepper, divided from a cooked eggplant purée by a row of crunchy iceberg lettuce leaves, which you could use to pick up the salads, or with a chunk of the freshly baked, delightfully crusty Moroccan bread. Then came Marrakech's bastilla, whose chicken, almonds, and egg filling was ground finer than Tajine's, and whose powdery topping contained much more cinnamon, but again, it disappeared in a trice.

We were surprised at how well and sincerely prepared everything was, but our mains were even better. The royal couscous here was topped (in addition to carrots, potatoes, zucchini, and chickpeas, and stewed grapes) with unusually flavorful stewed lamb that tasted like essence of lamb, and plump, moist, savory chicken. "This tastes like my grandma's roast chicken," I said, with delight. My braised hare was excellent: a tender half-bunny, disjointed but still on its bones, luxuriating in its olive-laden, oniony sauce, perfect for bread-dipping. From the extremely brief, pro forma wine list, we sipped a glass each of unremarkable, unidentified Moroccan white and red. When cocktails were ordered from the bar, a server would magically spin them upside down on a brass tray without spilling a drop.

By now the 8 p.m. belly-dancing show had started, with a properly spangled-and-bangled young lady, in a fairly modest two-piece green ensemble, flicking her hips and waist-length hair to a recorded track accompanied by one of the servers on tabla, to the unaffected enjoyment of all. Occasionally the CD stuttered as we lingered over two tiny pieces of soggy baklava (the only mingy portion of the feast) and endless cups of mint tea, impressively poured from a great height. Lulled by the unexpected fun we were having in an evening that veered away from self-conscious kitsch due to the quality of Marrakech's cooking and the desire of its caring staff to please, we even took part in the ritual of stuffing bills in the performer's, uh, belt.

"How will you expense that?!," my companion asked.

"Easy," I said, "Belly dancer: $3."

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Meredith Brody

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