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Take Me to the Casbah 

Dreamily enveloped in a fragrant cloud of cumin and orange-flower water at Baraka

Wednesday, Jul 23 2003
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I knew I would be hoist with my own petard when I wrote last week that the décor of a restaurant isn't all that important to me. Just not quite so soon. But the design of Baraka, the new Spanish-Moroccan tapas place opened on Potrero Hill by the owners of neighboring Chez Papa and Chez Maman, charmed me so much that I was delighted to be there even when a couple (and only a couple, I hasten to add) of the dishes we ordered were less than amazing.

The corner space affords views in two directions of pleasantly vertiginous streets dropping away in the distance. There are pumpkin-colored walls ("Tomato soup with a lot of cream," Anita thought) with insets of burgundy velvet and candle-filled niches, a huge wrought-iron chandelier laden with more fat candles, and rather baronial wrought-iron chairs softened with burgundy velvet cushions. It's not at all a kitschy look (vide the modernistic orange glass pendant lights hanging over the rear bar), but clean and stylish.

My first meal there is an early dinner with Betsy, a professional chef, but currently working at a wine-importing firm. (I let her choose our wine from Baraka's intriguing list, which features Spanish, French, and California varietals; she picks a lovely 2001 Château du Trignon red, an eminently drinkable blend of Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.) We start with a lovely salad of fava beans, peas, and asparagus tips, all bright green and shining with olive oil and the bright green flavors of mint and cilantro; and a friture of nicely fried, crisp, whole anchovies, and slices of fennel and lemon, with an aioli that I think needs lots more garlic. I'm less enamored of the next two dishes. (Possibly due to the small size of the copper-topped tables, the staff here seems to serve in courses, rather than plates arriving willy-nilly from the kitchen, as in many other tapas bars.) One is a rather muddy-tasting tagine of mushy monkfish and clams in the shell (at least one pair of shells missing its clam), and the other a grilled "kebbab" of tiny cubes of lamb anointed with salsa verde. "This is wildly salty," I say to Betsy. "And it's not exactly rare, either," she responds, which is what we replied when asked how we wanted it cooked. But then, tapas were originally salty snacks designed to encourage drinking. (I wish I'd chosen the Moroccan-style lamb meatballs instead. I love meatballs -- Swedish, Italian, Chinese, and, most recently, the Thai ones served at Koh Samui -- but often my companions demur: They seem to think they're baby food. "But they're on the menu," I point out.) The mildly cinnamoned couscous we've ordered alongside is fluffy and punched up with crunchy bits of pistachio and sherry-soaked golden raisins.

All is forgiven once we try our truly glorious desserts, a currant-freighted rice pudding scented with almond extract, and plump, eggy, sugar-crusted beignets redolent of orange-flower water, which we dip in orange marmalade and tangy yogurt. Betsy is on such a sugar high that when we wander back to our car (stopping only to check out the shoes at Delirious and the tchotchkes at Collage), she suggests we break our leases, find a flat in the neighborhood, and move in together. (This is not because of my charms, but because of the neighborhood's.)

Baraka filled up quickly that night -- every table was full -- but it's much quieter at lunch, when Bernice and I are given a window table. We begin with kirs made with tangerine syrup rather than the expected crème de cassis; I think the drink could use a drop more of the syrup, but it's still so refreshing that I drain my aperitif and surprise myself by ordering a glass of Riesling (it's lunch, after all).

We start with a refreshing fattoush salad, frisée adorned with cubes of goat feta, baby artichokes, grapefruit segments, almonds, and the fried chips that make the salad fattoush ("fattoush," it seems, means "moistened bread"). The varying textures and flavors make a delightful combination. We chose that salad when we found out Baraka was out of the roasted peppers with shaved artichokes and boquerones, so we are cheered when we find that our other starter of three grilled prawns skewered on a rosemary branch is served on a bed of pipérade -- mildly garlicky red and yellow peppers.

I am about to order the meatballs (Bernice is accepting of such foibles), but discover they're not among the lunch offerings. Instead, I go for another favorite, merguez, spicy red sausage, served in a sandwich and tricked out with what the menu calls silver beets (which look like spinach and turn out to be beet leaves), golden raisins (which add a nice touch of sweetness), pungent harissa aioli, and pine nuts: a terrific little sandwich. As is the jamon serrano and Mahon cheese bocadillo, layered with roasted peppers. (When I show the Baraka lunch menu to my epicurean godson Chester during our farewell lunch at Chez Panisse -- turnip soup, salad with preserved tuna, duck confit with snap peas and sage, beef stew with cannellini beans and bread crumbs, very good, thanks -- he says, "They have squid! They have rabbit! Why did you order sandwiches?" "They were very good," I moan piteously.)

The desserts this time aren't as memorable, alas, as the rice pudding and beignets of my dreams: a kinda soggy apricot and pistachio "torte" that seems more like a clafouti (fruit baked in batter) and a warm chocolate cake saved from cliché by a good, sharp peppermint cream. And I'm a bit jealous when I see another table getting its mint tea poured, dazzlingly, from a silver teapot at a great height, when mine comes already in its pretty decorated glass, even if it is adorned with floating pine nuts.

After lunch, Bernice and I explore the neighborhood, admiring Chez Maman's shiny aluminum chairs (in which you can enjoy crepes, burgers, omelets, and steak frites) and Chez Papa's red wood ones (in which you can savor more ambitious dishes from the South of France). We browse a bit at Christopher's Books and continue a tradition begun at our previous lunch, when I wanted to get Bernice a copy of M.F.K. Fisher's The Gastronomical Me, probably my favorite food book, and, not finding it on the shelves of Green Apple Books, substituted Sallie Tisdale's The Best Thing I Ever Tasted. (Bernice reciprocated by gifting me with Issue No. 5 of PekoPeko, an adorable food zine with which I instantly became obsessed.) This time, The Gastronomical Me again not in stock, I get her a copy of Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin. (If our luck holds at future lunches, Bernice is going to acquire quite a nice little library of gastronomy.)

The next night, I am not surprised when Peter, Anita, and I love virtually everything we order for dinner. Our first course is a round of creamy, warm goat cheese crusted with pistachio bits and sitting in a seductive pool of onion jam and honey, every drop of which we scoop up with bits of sesame-sprinkled bread; and delectable dates stuffed with chorizo, Cabrales (a Spanish blue cheese), and serrano, served with a salad of frisée and golden raisins. I am just about to slip in an undiscussed plate of meatballs when Peter asks for falafel, and I'm glad he does: They're green inside, made with fresh fava beans, and amazingly light, as different from the usual chickpea falafel as an airy matzo ball is from a leaden one (though both can be tasty!). We finish every drop of their tahini-yogurt sauce, too.

We move on to tender, mild grilled squid, topped with bread crumbs and splashed with a bit of what I think is cream but turns out to be that same rather pale aioli, and a perfect bit of sautéed, white-fleshed dorade under crisp skin, on a bed of similarly crisp crescents of celery, an unexpectedly good combination. The next remove, two meat courses: a tagine of veal cheeks, cooked down with dates and eggplant to a suave, jammy stew adorned with chickpeas (happily resistant to the tooth) and seductive slivers of orange peel; and a plump, meaty, cumin-scented grilled quail, on a bed of those spinachlike "silver beets." We strip the moist, savory beast to its tiny bones. We don't, however, finish a plate of big, mealy Spanish fries.

Peter, who's also worked as a cook and who has an impressive collection of well-used and well-loved cookbooks, shocks me when he tells me he found PekoPeko a bit twee; Anita, seeing my dismay, says, "Oh, don't let it bother you; he finds M.F.K. Fisher cloying." There are two desserts I haven't yet tried, a rose-water crème caramel and a roasted pear with anise chantilly, but I can't resist a second round of the rice pudding and beignets. I think this time the beignets are a shade light on the orange-flower water, but they disappear with alacrity. Again, we finish our meal with a walk around the neighborhood (Anita pulls me into Bloom's Saloon to show me its excellent and unexpected view of the San Francisco skyline). While Peter and Anita are cheered by the sight of a happy reunion between a guy and the black-and-white puppy some good Samaritans have found while he's been frantically searching for him, my mind is on something baser: When am I going to get a plate of those elusive meatballs?

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Meredith Brody

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