SCHENECTADY We love Moroccan food — how it tastes, how it smells and how it’s able to evoke faraway, romantic places where meats and spicy compotes are stewed in tajines, and you eat with your hands, tearing off pieces of flatbread to mop up all the juices.
So I was more than a little excited when Tara Kitchen opened on Liberty Street in Schenectady a few weeks ago. Unfortunately for me, it was some time before I could make my first visit to the place, though wife Beverly already had eaten there with friends on a few occasions.
I did have some idea of what to expect, however, because I had sampled the food when Tara was an itinerant operation peddling food at the green market.
If you haven’t sampled the food of Morocco, Tara Kitchen is a great place for an introduction. Its dishes are authentic but they’re not intimidating — unless you find chicken and potatoes with chickpeas a scary combo.
Tara Kitchen’s menus — one for dinner and another for lunch — are not extensive, but they offer a good selection of Moroccan mainstays — like ground lamb and chicken, rice pilaf and kati rolls, which are crispy flatbreads with several choices of savory fillings served rolled up and ready to eat with your hands.
WHERE: 431 Liberty St., Schenectady. 778-3485, www.tarakitchen.com
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 5-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
OTHER INFO: All major credit cards accepted
Most of the dishes are seasoned with a wonderful spice mix that owner Muntasim Shoaib told us contains about a dozen ingredients. (He wouldn’t tell us any of the ingredients, but did say they plan to sell the blend in their restaurant eventually. Also in the works are: a license to sell beer and wine, American citizenship for Shoaib and, sometime soon, a second child for him and his wife, Aneesa Waheed.)
The restaurant’s decor might be described as charmingly eclectic, with a counter and stools and a few tables when you enter, an open kitchen where you can see the food being prepared, and stairs leading to another dining area that is pleasantly decorated but badly in need of a window.
The restaurant is a family enterprise. In the kitchen when we visited was the owner’s “auntie,” who was filling in for his wife, who is about to have a baby. Our server was the owner himself, who escorted us to the upper level where we were seated at a table against the rear wall. Besides water, we were given cups of mint tea, warm and sweetened with honey, for sipping while we perused the menu.
The background music is classical, which we always welcome as a pleasant accompaniment to a meal.
Our only disappointment was that they were out of lamb on the day we visited — which is a bit like Villa Italia being fresh out of pastries, but I understand things happen, especially when you’re new.
The food they did have was excellently prepared and reasonably priced.
We started out with a shared bowl of harira — chicken soup with basmati rice, chickpeas, yellow lentils, onions and other vegetables in a spicy broth for $6.
We also shared a potato kati ($4), which was a large piece of crispy flatbread encasing a lovely, savory mixture of seasoned potatoes and other vegetables that had been cooked in a tagine. If you think potatoes are boring, order this dish at Tara’s and you’ll immediately change your mind. (This particular dish was our favorite among those we had, though everything was appealing for different reasons.)
Beverly had wanted a lamb dish for her entree, but once we discovered they had none, we decided to share my entree — Boneless Chicken Brochette with apricot and prune marinade ($8).
The chicken was coated with the fruity marinade so that when it was grilled, the outside caramelized to almost black. The result was a slightly sweet and crispy exterior and moist and flavorful meat inside. It was served with a rice pilaf and a medley of stewed vegetables flavored with the secret spice blend. The dish was a delightful combination of flavors and textures, and we left not a drop of it on the plate.
Other possibilities on the luncheon menu are Ras-El-Hanout seasoned grilled fish for $10, a ground chicken kebab with pomegranate seeds for $8, a mixed vegetable tagine for $7 and the kati rolls which, besides the seasoned potato, include a seasoned ground chicken ($4) and when they have it, a lamb shaami kebab ($6).
The harira (chicken soup) is available each day. You can also order a ground lamb kebab for $10, and a spinach, chickpeas and potatoes tagine for $7.
Dinner at Tara Kitchen offers a wider array of possibilities. Dishes include appetizers of eggplant, roasted garlic and tomato dip ($3), potato patties with mixed vegetables ($3) and harissa marinated olives ($4).
Tagines are served with flatbread and couscous and include chicken with preserved lemons and green olives ($16), chicken with fried lentils ($16), eggplant with prunes, honey and chickpeas ($14), fish with potatoes, tomatoes and black olives ($18), lamb with honey, prune and apricots ($21) and lamb meatballs in fresh tomato sauce with eggs ($19).
Our luncheon came to a modest $25, including tax and tip, with efficient and friendly service provided by the owner, who’s likely to be your server as well.
Those who grow up in the restaurant business sometimes become restaurateurs themselves. Aneesa Waheed, co-owner of Tara Kitchen with her husband, Muntasim Shoaib, is a case in point. Her parents are the owners-operators of the Taj Mahal restaurant, featuring Indian cuisine, on Jay Street across from City Hall in Schenectady.