The cooking of the Maghreb is among the most exciting in the world, though vastly underappreciated in New York City. Once known as the land of the Moors, this region of North Africa includes contemporary Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia. It lies at the end of ancient spice routes, so the flavors are diverse, yet used with extreme subtlety. A pinch of powdered ginger my enliven a roast chicken; cinnamon is used as if it were, quite literally, worth its weight in gold. French and Arab cooking techniques are woven throughout, like colorful threads in a Berber wedding kaftan.
Which is why news that Bar Omar was opening in Williamsburg three months ago was so exciting. Not only is it the city's only Algerian restaurant that I know of, but it's also linked to Chez Omar, a 38-year-old French-Algerian cafe in Paris's 3rd arrondissement, which one American tourist referred to as "culinary heaven." Near the corner of Grand and Bedford, with front windows flung open to late spring breezes, the deep and snaking interior effectively summons a classic French bistro.
A wooden bar clad in brass is flanked with bentwood stools darkly stained, and used bricks dabbed here and there with paint pave the walls. Antique-looking mirrors hang throughout, giving Brooklyn boulevardiers discreet views of other tables. There is an interior room in which a stunning quietness prevails, where you may converse to your heart's content as you sip modestly priced wines. The Provençal rosé from Jas des Vignes ($31), fruity and dry, goes well with the tajines and couscouses that form the heart of the Maghreb menu; for the French flourishes like steak frites and assorted salades, pick the austere and lightly tannic Côtes du Rhône from Les Argentières ($31).
The menu is perhaps too brief, featuring both Algerian and French classics but containing more than one North African dish worth savoring. Brick au thon ($10) makes a very nice appetizer for two. Sheets of warka pastry, similar to phyllo, come wrapped around tuna. Also cracked in the package is a raw egg. As the dish is cooked briefly on each side, the white coagulates while the yolk remains runny. Cut into the thing and yellow should spurt out, as it did on one occasion at Bar Omar, though not on another due to overcooking. No matter, it was tasty both times, like a Moorish tuna sandwich.
The more familiar bastilla, another pastry made from warka, comes layered with chicken and topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, making for a starter that also shouts, "dessert!" In Algeria, the meat would be pigeon (squab), a far darker and richer bird. No North African restaurant in town has had the chutzpah to serve the pastry with its authentic filling, maybe because New Yorkers actively hate pigeons. Aside from three rather mundane salads (including one featuring endive, walnuts, apples, and balsamic vinaigrette), we're pretty much at the end of your appetizer choices.
Which is fine because the tajines are so damn good. These seem to be finished in the conical clay contraption from which the dish takes its name, which is nothing short of wonderful. Most North African restaurants in town simply dump the finished stew in the tajine as if it were merely a serving vessel. Does the charred clay add to the flavor? Not sure, but it certainly adds to the pleasure of eating. My favorite tajine ($36, for two) features eggs and kefta in what amounts to a Creole sauce, chunky with tomatoes and green peppers. That the meatballs are too big and beefy doesn't matter — call it an Italian-American adaptation of a Franco-Algerian standard.
Made with chicken flavored with green olives and salt-preserved lemons, the most famous tajine is also rendered with aplomb at Bar Omar. A third features lamb and potatoes in a prune and apricot sauce. The couscouses are all generated from a single prototype ($15) featuring a very fine-grained semolina and rather dull multi-vegetable sauce to be dumped over it. The nine variations ($18 to $28) simply involve serving meat on the side, the same selection that populates the Meat and Fish section of the menu. Lamb méchoui turns out to be just a tough roasted shank with little meat and no sauce. So go instead with the tender roast chicken. Or skip the couscous in favor of the tajine, unless you're a couscous fanatic.
The desserts are exclusively French (with the exception of baklava), and generally good, and include a monster slice of tarte tatin served with whipped cream, and one of the richest crème brûlées (my spell check wants to change that to "braless") you've ever tasted. Skip the chocolate mousse, which is so dense a chainsaw rather than a spoon is the proper utensil. So what does it all add up to? An exceedingly comfortable and agreeable restaurant, with a premise that slightly outpaces the food. Yet the menu is not without its highlights, boasting a wine program nicely matched with the provender, and both of them a few dollars less than you might expect to pay in this neighborhood. Hopefully, the menu will evolve further.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a brick, shared tajine, bottle of wine, and shared dessert, with tax but not tip, $90
Sample dishes: Bastilla, Moroccan salad, vegetable couscous with homemade merguez, chicken tajine with green olives and preserved lemon
What to drink: French, Spanish, and Californian wines are bargain priced; invented cocktails are also available, but not particularly North African
Bonus tip: Bar Omar offers the best french fries in Williamsburg. They taste great dipped in the tajine gravy, and would also serve well as an appetizer.