Monday, July 27, 2009

Tangierino Brings Tastes of Morocco to the Hub

If you can’t find Charlestown all that easily, follow the freedom trail. Or, simply follow your nostrils, which will lead you to the tantalizing aromas emanating from well-regarded Moroccan chophouse Tangierino, which is located steps away from the historical (if not off-the-beaten) path on charming Main Street. This ten-year-old establishment was founded by executive chef/owner Samad Naamad, whose flair for creativity (he also poses as an interior designer and filmmaker) makes Tangierino an unforgettable, exotic dining experience.

Tangierino’s ambience is intoxicating, much like its food (more on that in a moment). The African mahogany bar is simple yet cozy and elegant. The main dining area is doubly impressive aesthetic-wise, swathed in dark hues and upon whose walls hang several mysterious paintings of a stranger’s veiled eyes. A more intimate, secluded seating arrangement includes several lowered tables replete with sofas, pillows, and curtains. Moroccan music plays over the speakers throughout the course of the evening, but the room’s spacing and acoustics make for easy, pleasant tableside conversation. A belly dancer sporadically pops by, embellishing the already exotic festivities. One minor flaw: the dimly lit setting may be a perhaps too dark, particularly for customers who want to fully observe and appreciate the meticulous presentations and plating of dishes (or for that matter, successfully order from the menu).

Namaad and chef de cuisine Abdul Laarag infuse the menu with both old and new world cuisine (the latter is simply old world with French/Asian touches). For appetizers (averaging $11-19), my partner and I sample one from each: a delectable Moroccan fisherman stew (old world selection - $14), abundant with shrimp, littlenecks, squid, and white fish. What makes the stew sing, however, is the zesty tomato-cilantro broth in which the seafood simmer, which includes marinated olives and harissa (a spicy North African hot red sauce made from chili powder and garlic). Perhaps even better? A new world selection of 4-layer tuna tartare, a bombardment of flavors that include moist, spicy tuna, guacaomole, scallions, cucumber and cilantro, accentuated by a unique, refreshing honey-mango sauce.

Entrees (ranging from $19-33) couldn’t possibly live up to the quality of the starters, but boy, do they ever. Our llamb dishes arrive, and my companion asks me to direct my nose just above her dish and inhale. I comply, and must attest that I cannot recall the last time a prepared meal so aroused these senses. The Moroccan spices not only enhance the flavors of these dishes, but make them sexy to eat (a Middle-Eastern aphrodisiac, if you will). My wife’s Couscous Royal (old world tagine - $28) consists of a perfectly tender braised lam shank, accompanied by 7-vegetable couscous (which includes sweet potatoes and chickpeas) and a spiced merguez (ground lamb in phyllo dough). My wife’s eye’s close in pleasure with each bite, and after a few of my own, I wholeheartedly concur. The Sultan’s Kadra (new world - $31), our server explains, is far and away the restaurant’s most popular entrĂ©e, and it’s easy to understand why. I certainly feel like a sultan when consuming a lip-smackingly good, generous 8 ounce cut of roast lamb sprinkled with Za’atar spice (which provides the lamb with a fascinating, perfume-like aftertaste) and rosemary reduction. A fresh fig and apricot sweetly compliment the lamb, but the star of this dish, and possibly the evening, is the stunningly good fried eggplant, served in the form of a giant tart stuffed with goat cheese, and topped with shitake mushrooms. Praise is often heaped upon dishes that do not merit it, but when a concoction as inventive and bold in flavor as this one arrives, you’re witnessing culinary magic.

Cocktails ($11-13) are a tad overpriced given their underwhelming flavors. The sparkling blue lemonade ($12), consisting of Cold River blueberry vodka, lemonade, muddled blueberries, lemon and soda) is not sweet enough and far too bitter – not enough berries to quench one’s thirst on a hot summer day. The Moroccan coffee ($12) promises to be a more authentic upgrade over the standard espresso martini, adding kahlua, cinnamon, and nutmeg into the equation. While traces of kahlua are noticeable, the other two ingredients are all but absent. You’ll have more luck with a wide array of wines which consist of over 200 bottles (averaging $9-13). A subtle Chilean pinot noir ($9) pairs magnificently with the lamb.

Desserts are decent enough, but lack the authenticity and creativity of our preceding courses. A flourless chocolate cake ($10) surrounded by whipped cream is gooey and tasty, but we’ve devoured better ones. Instead, head straight for the addictive Moroccan mint tea ($7), a steamy, sweet beverage that left us craving another pot.

Service was nothing less than exceptional. Our waiter was extremely competent, attentive, and knowledgeable of the menu, politely and patiently guiding us through his recommendations, all of which were spot-on. The meal was also well-paced. Case in point: several minutes after having our appetizers removed from our table, our server asked if we would like to have the kitchen proceed in terms of preparing our entrees. Now that is the leisurely approach that fine dining establishments everywhere need to adopt with its customers.

Tangierino treats its clientele like royalty with its eclectic fare and romantic atmosphere. And while the newly-expanded space include a multi-room lounge and cigar bar downstairs (Koullshi) that was a little bit club-ish and ill-fitted for the space for my taste, its kitchen puts out some of the city’s finest, and might I add grossly underappreciated cuisine: how did this place not find its way onto Boston Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants of 2009?). Prices are high, but not exorbitantly so when compared to the city’s other top eateries. After all, is it fair to place a price on an establishment that makes couples, if just for an evening, feel like kings and queens?