My first encounter with a real Moroccan tagine was 30 years ago in the home of a taxi driver who had invited me to dinner with his family in Fez, Morocco.
We sat in a circle on the floor around a chicken his mother had simmered with onions, as the aroma of cinnamon and saffron filled the small room. She fished from the pot what looked like the bent length of drainpipe found under a sink and, with the proud smile of a host presenting the most sought-after portion to a guest, laid it on my plate. It was the entire neck of the chicken. My polite smile became a real one after I began to pull the tender strands of dark meat from the bones and eat them with torn patches of whole-grain khobz, a low-rising bread that is the perfect thing for drinking up the juices of a tagine.
In two weeks travelling through Morocco, I never ate anything more delicious than that chicken neck, although it was equaled a few nights later by a lamb and quince tagine cooked by the same woman. Neither tagine, though, was prepared in an actual tagine, a two-piece clay vessel that shares its name with the fragrantly spiced stews that are its main product. If my hosts owned one of those, I never saw it. When tagine was on the menu, it was made in a wide aluminium pot.
Ever since, I haven’t much cared what my tagines are cooked in. I do appreciate the look of the traditional ceramic vessels, whether their lids are shaped like inverted funnels, severe and geometric, or molded in the more modern style, tall with sloping sides that make them look like cooling towers at a nuclear power plant. I’m more interested in what’s underneath, the fruits and meats and harmonies of spice that carry over into the steam that billows up when the lids are raised.
So I wasn’t bothered very much when I came to suspect that the tagines at Dar Yemma, a bright, glossy new Moroccan restaurant in Queens, are not cooked in the glazed clay pots they’re served in, or not entirely. The sesame seeds and toasted almonds scattered over the lamb shank tagine, for instance, were clearly last-minute additions. I also wondered about the rosewater-scented prunes and dried apricots around the lamb. With rosewater, a few extra drops can take a dish from charming to bossy. This fruit wore just enough perfume to be noticed, without any spilling over into the lamb or its rich sauce. These small details and others made this a tagine that captured the seductive nuance of the Moroccan kitchen in ways that I have rarely found in New York.
Dar Yemma opened in February on the strip of North African businesses on Steinway Street in Astoria. Although the area is often called Little Egypt, a strong competing claim could be made for calling it Little Morocco. This happens to be the name of another Moroccan restaurant in the area that is near a Moroccan travel agency, which is close to a Moroccan sandwich shop, which is in the vicinity of a Moroccan grocery where you can buy yourself a painted and glazed ceramic tagine.
The menu at Dar Yemma goes on at some length. One page is given to appetisers wrapped in papery layers of phyllo. There is a bastila the size of a teacup, filled with chopped almonds and dry chicken. Better than that are the flaky, cigar-shaped briouates; one is filled with fresh cheese and cilantro, another with lightly spiced lamb and vermicelli, which gives the stuffing a jaunty little bounce that plays well against the fragile sheets of phyllo.
But long passages of the menu can be ignored. The best of the salads is clearly zaalouk, a heap of eggplant cooked with tomatoes and red peppers in olive oil until it surrenders. The zaalouk is a very good dip for torn pieces of khobz; it’s even good with what is probably supposed to be French bread but which will strike most New Yorkers as a cut-up hero roll.
The cucumber-tomato salad needs more herbs and lemon juice. I don’t know of anything that would fix the terrible carrot and beet salads.
There is not much joy in the watery and unconvincing harira. From the grill, the kebabs of tough beef and the crumbly, purplish, almost flavourless merguez should be left alone.
Dar Yemma is a tagine specialist, whether the menu knows it or not. Some of the other offerings can be haphazard, but the tagines are wonderful.
There is chicken with green olives and preserved lemons, that classic of the tagine repertory. The olives are more tart than the lemons, which have a fragrance that is more floral than fruity.
Fat, pink shrimp arrive in a bright-red tomato sauce that is very lightly seasoned, apart from fresh cilantro. For cubes of beef liver, the kitchen makes an entirely different tomato sauce, a thick gravy dark with the funk of offal. The spices in it are so closely integrated that you can only guess at their identities. Cinnamon? Paprika? Not everyone likes liver cooked so thoroughly, but if liver is going to be firm and chewy, this is the right kind of sauce for it.
The pastry display case in the front window may be loaded with European-style desserts like tiramisu and chocolate tart, or with baklava, almond cigars and other Moroccan sweets. On the other hand, it may be empty. Either way, there is an argument to be made for ending with hot mint tea, and another argument, a more persuasive one, I think, for ordering mint tea right at the beginning and drinking it all night long. — NYT