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Aicha serves flavorful Moroccan food at popular prices 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2009

At Aicha, a modest new Moroccan restaurant on Polk Street, you'll get all the highlights you'd find on the menus of fancier North African places around town — garlicky dips; b'stilla, a pie stuffed with chicken; long-stewed tagines seasoned with cumin and paprika; grilled kebabs served with saffron rice — but without the belly-dancing that often comes with the pricey prix-fixe.

There isn't room for a floor show — the open kitchen takes up almost half the space of the simple storefront, where there's seating for about 30 at sturdy wood tables. Care has been taken to create a pleasant setting without spending too much: The walls are painted peach with terracotta accents, and multicolored glass Moroccan lanterns are positioned around the kitchen. The ceiling is dominated by an unfortunately huge and industrial-looking exhaust pipe.

But you'll overlook the decor when the food arrives, though you might still be sad to find there's no alcohol served — Aicha is halal, which, among other things, prohibits pork and alcohol. Almost everything on the menu costs less than $10 except for a couscous royale with chicken, lamb, and merguez, which is ample enough for two at $13. Moroccan food combines elements of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and African cooking, with heady hints of turmeric, ginger, and coriander. At Aicha, despite the low prices, you'll find such sophisticated touches as freshly toasted almonds and sesame seeds. Among the more familiar tagines and kebabs, we found a few surprises, including particularly deep-flavored vegetarian dishes and a meatball-and-egg dish we'd never seen before.

We sampled four of the six starters on offer. Zaalook ($4) was a garlicky, peppery mash of eggplant and tomatoes, heated with paprika and cumin. Taktouka ($4) came as a tangle of limp grilled strips of red bell peppers, shining with olive oil. Both were bright and fresh and fun to eat when piled on the puffy, rather bland small rounds of Moroccan bread. One night, the bread was a trifle stale and served whole and cold; on another, it came to the table fresh, heated, and sliced, with a saucer of high-quality olive oil. Long cuts of carrots a la chermoula ($4) betrayed very little of the spice blend (which features garlic, cilantro, mint, paprika, turmeric, and cayenne) in its name. They tasted like lightly vinegared, very mild pickled carrots. The b'stilla ($6) was good, crisp phyllo dough filled with chicken in a mixture "sweet and peppery, soft and violent," according to its over-the-top menu description. The shredded chicken was indeed sweet and soft, but we detected no violence in its gently cinnamoned mixture, flavored with onions and ground almonds. We appreciated the fact that there was only the lightest dusting of powdered sugar, unlike the snowdrifts elsewhere that turn the pie cloying.

It's with the main courses that Aicha really shines. Everything was good, and a few dishes were amazingly delicious. The tagines came to the table in small versions of the conical-topped cooking pots that give the stews their name. Lamb tagine ($9) featured meaty chunks of shank braised in a thick, sticky sauce full of melted onions and softened whole prunes, with whole toasted almonds and a sprinkling of sesame seeds; it was satisfyingly muttony. The chicken tagine ($9), two pieces of the bird with, happily, skin and bones still intact, was bright yellow from its saffron marinade and heaped with olives, but could have used a bit more of the preserved lemon its sauce only hinted at. Kefta tagine ($9) was a wonder, and one of the two dishes at Aicha we found to be not only original but also completely irresistible: tiny, highly seasoned meatballs in a savory tomato sauce with a soft-cooked egg alongside, waiting to mix its liquid yolk with the rich sauce. These dishes were hearty, highly flavored, and homey. The fish tagine ($10) suffered from its pale, rather flavorless farmed salmon, which picked up little allure from its chermoula marinade. We preferred its companions of tomatoes, red onions, and sliced potatoes, cooked alongside in a paprika broth.

Five tasty, bright-red lamb merguez sausage links ($10) came with a good portion of plain rice and another heap of lightly dressed chopped romaine, strewn with crumbled feta. A frequent special of grilled lamb chops ($10) was even more generous: Four slightly flattened rib chops, cooked unfashionably medium, were served criss-crossed on another hillock of rice, garnished with red taktouka peppers.The vegetables in the vegetarian couscous scattered with garbanzos ($9) — zucchini, butternut squash, and carrots — were cooked almost to the point of mush: All of their essence had gone into their cooking liquid, reduced and served alongside in a small ramekin. It was so full of flavor that we thought a chicken-stock version had come to the table by accident. A similar miracle was wrought with the vegetarian tagine of white beans ($7), whose sauce was incredibly meaty-tasting and delicious. One night the couscous was bland and rather dry; another night, a side order ($3) was moister and fluffier, but startlingly cinnamony.

Lemon tart ($3), rice pudding ($2), and vanilla flan ($3) are listed for dessert, but when we tried to order all three one night at 8:45, we were told the tart and pudding weren't ready yet. We settled for a shared flan, strewn with nuts crushed almost to powder. It was curiously light, barely sweet, with a mouthfeel devoid of fat. When we asked our server what its ingredients were, he said, "I wish the chef would tell me!" At our second meal, the flan was again the only confection available. This time we were told that it was eggless and thickened with cornstarch, with a touch (almost undetectable) of half-and-half.

When we left that evening, we passed three guys whose table was cluttered with little plates heaped with olives, roasted peppers, mashed eggplant, and lots of the kefta meatballs, all piled in varying assortments on Moroccan bread, alongside the surprising addition of a plastic bear full of honey they were squeezing on top. It startled us a bit, but it gave us an idea for what to eat next time — along with the kefta and white-bean tagines we had to have again.

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Meredith Brody

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