Like Broadway shows that run first in Chicago or New Haven, Tara Kitchen first established branches in upstate towns — Troy, Schenectady, and Guilderland — and on the Jersey Shore in Wildwood before opening in Manhattan. While this one is not in the Theater District, it is at 253 Church Street, near Leonard Street, in Tribeca. Chef Aneesa Waheed, who was born in Mumbai but was smitten with Moroccan food during a visit to Marrakesh, is already something of a Food Network celebrity. She appeared on Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games and Beat Bobby Flay (she lost); she also has her own line of jarred sauces and a cookbook, too.
Success indicators aside, Tara Kitchen is the best Moroccan restaurant to hit NYC in a long time. The recipes have benefited from being fine-tuned at Waheed’s previous restaurants, and have a lived-in quality that made them seem like Mom’s home cooking, Moroccan-style. More attention is paid to flavor than appearance, which is a good thing if you don’t visit restaurants to bolster your Instagram.
Yet another reason to visit Tara Kitchen: It offers some unusual dishes in comparison to New York’s handful of Moroccan restaurants. Moroccan cooking is some of the world’s most exciting. The country’s location at the terminus of trans-Saharan trade routes means it has historically had access to a broad range of spices and uses them in its cuisine with brilliant subtlety.
One such dish is r’fissa ($29), chicken seasoned with fenugreek and saffron and bathed in cured butter called smen that’s on its way to becoming cheese. Along with lentils and currents, the bird is deposited on a bed of shredded flatbread that soaks up the juices and becomes soft like a savory bread pudding. What a privilege to be enjoying a dish in Tribeca often served at special occasions in Morocco.
While many Moroccan restaurants mount menus fairly evenly divided between couscous and tagines, Tara Kitchen ignores the former and concentrates on the latter — stews cooked in a conical ceramic vessel, which can contain chicken, seafood, lamb, or vegetables as a main ingredient.
Waheed offers an impressive 26 tagines. Your introduction to the dish here should be the most famous: chicken m’chermel ($29), a half chicken and potatoes flavored with green olives and preserved lemons, which resolve themselves into a thick tart sauce in which every olive is a flavor oasis.
Also don’t miss the lamb tagines. Mechoui is the one I like best, a monster shank braised with honey and harissa. As an added bonus, the shank is deposited on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes. Other lamb tagines feature ingredients like dried apricots, toasted almonds, eggplant, and chermoula — a tomato condiment of fresh herbs and garlic made into a pungent and verdant-tasting paste. Tagines may be mopped with pitas or eaten with rice.
Warm salads are another delight. The best ($9) features tender fava beans tossed with artichoke hearts in a dressing more sharp than mellow. The fig salad was not nearly as good, since, with white beans and almonds, it was less harmonious. Other appetizing possibilities include a simple plate of cracked and spiced Marrakesh green olives, served warm and tasting of garlic and red chiles.
Another recommendation is the Essaouira plate, which name-checks what’s now a resort city on the country’s West Coast once known for its fishing fleet. The dish is a choice assortment of seafood (scallops, shrimp, and fish) sprinkled with a light spice mixture that enhances oceanic flavors.
Tara Kitchen opened its Tribeca branch just before Christmas last year, but didn’t get its wine and beer license until this month. The wine list includes Moroccan wines so now you can enjoy your tagines even more. And should you wish to linger after your meal, consider an order of baklava.