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Posts from the ‘north african’ Category

Zerza: East Village Moroccan Lacking in the Za Za Zu

Zerza, one of the few non-Indian restaurants on the East Village’s Curry Lane, truly underlines for me the difficulty of successfully running a restaurant in New York. In really any American city other than Los Angeles and San Francisco, this tiny Moroccan storefront would be an ethnic food stand-out. Yet, with the extraordinary competition from small ethnic spots in the East Village alone, Zerza struggles to separate itself from the pack.

Tiny and easy to miss, the look is everything you would expect from a Moroccan restaurant in Manhattan – chintzy bohemian pillows, North African rugs/tapestries hung on the exposed brick walls, exotic glowing lanterns and chandeliers, all with a slick finish. The narrow railroad space is best described as warm and cozy, intimate, imbued with the vague feeling of being in someone’s home. A lone waitress services the entire restaurant, acting as hostess, server, and busboy. A bright spot in the experience at Zerza, she’s friendly, efficient, and attentive. Hats off to her impressive multi-tasking prowess.

The menu incorporates both traditional Moroccan dishes and more American/European fusion options. No matter what you’re eating though, expect an in-your-face use of spices and a satisfying balance of savory and sweet elements. My friend Jen and I split the more promising set of appetizers, Moroccan cigars and grilled merguez sausage. To be fair, it’s pretty difficult to mess up merguez, but Zerza’s play on the slender sausage was particularly delicious – soaked in a chunky tomato sauce with a poached egg, the meat packed a spicy savory punch. The moroccan cigars encompassed the types of flavors one would expect from Moroccan food – fragrant spiced ground beef stuffed into delicate phyllo cigars with a side of hot harissa sauce – tangy, aromatic, slightly sweet.

Jen moved on to the Kefta Tagine, while I opted for the Lamb Mrouzia Tagine. The Kefta was a traditional tagine, served in a classic clay tagine pot with small chunky meatballs marinated in a spiced tomato sauce with poached egg. A small side of couscous was also provided. The effect was hot and hearty comfort food – the type of food you want to eat when a chill lingers in the air. The Lamb Mrouzia Tagine was a more contemporary interpretation of the ‘tagine’ – presented on a white dish, the braised lamb came served on the bone, very Flintstones’ prehistoric-style, surrounded with a soupy sweet prune and almond sauce. It was bold and fragrant, well-braised so that it just melted off the bone, and surprisingly complex. Zerza’s cuisine is comforting and accessible, both to those new to and familiar with Moroccan fare. However, don’t expect culinary fireworks – the middle of the road grub pleases but doesn’t inspire, satisfies but lacks a spark necessary to transcend the ordinary. There are no surprises to look forward to here.

Don’t get me wrong – the food here is good to very good, the ambience is relaxed, the service friendly. However, with so many restaurants in the surrounding neighborhood that fit the same bill, the competition is stiff. In order to stand out, Zerza needs a certain je ne sais quoi that is missing right now. The ideal neighborhood spot, Zerza is great for a cheap and easy meal in the hood (and for satisfying the occasional craving for spiced meat).

Zerza on Urbanspoon

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Cafe Gitane: Where the Pretty Things Are

Newsflash: I found the pretty people. You know, that enviable group of men and women that look effortlessly put-together no matter what, that posh club of humans capable of pulling off just about any look without thought. They breakfast, brunch, and lunch at Cafe Gitane’s new outpost in The Jane Hotel, and boy, do they look fine.

This well-pedigreed French Moroccan cafe attracts the well-heeled and well-dressed like a siren song, and they flock in crowds for avocado toast, couscous, luscious pastries, and strong coffee. You’d think that such a place would rest on its laurels, yet, remarkably, the food is as beautiful as the scene. The ballroom-like dining room is stunning with mint plaster walls, soaring ceilings, cream moldings, and airy windows staring off onto the Hudson. Everything from the lazily-spinning ceiling fans to the pastry display cases to the slightly off-kilter tables, quirky chandeliers, and antique mirrors recalls the South of France. The shabby chic look echoes the too cool relaxed vibe of those who just don’t need to work.
The food is French/Moroccan with a casual bistro flare; it is flavorful, unusual, flecked with North African spices, and unapologetically hearty. The menu features beloved favorites like the avocado toast (divine and creamy with lemon juice, olive oil and chili flakes on seven grain) and the teeter-tottering tower of Moroccan couscous, complete with peppers, raisons, hummus, pine nuts, eggplant, and either merguez sausage or chicken. Both are musts if you’re a first-timer. Other wonders, at brunch, lunch and dinner, are the petit plats (think: brie with apples, marinated beets with cinnamon, and herb goat cheese with pomegranate syrup), the baked eggs in a porcelain dish with basil, tomato and cream, and the Hachi Parmienter (a shephard’s pie concoction). A classic European breakfast is also offered for just $8.25, including coffee, orange juice, and a tartine or croissant with butter and jam.
The new Cafe Gitane is effortlessly cool; it has an inimitable vibe that recalls simultaneously the glamour of Cannes, the heat of Morocco, and the electricity of New York City. It doesn’t over-charge for its simple and unique fare, and it succeeds in making all feel welcome, despite the enviably posh clientele. Perfect for a leisurely breakfast, indulging a Francophile’s nagging nostalgia, a spirited group dinner with close friends, or entertaining foreign guests, this Meatpacking/West Village newcomer successfully carves a niche for itself with an addictive je ne sais quoi atmosphere.
Cafe Gitane on Urbanspoon

Alta: Moroccan Tapas

Alta is almost like a secret garden at night: hidden, dark with twinkling lanterns, hidden dining rooms, and a surprising menu.

Located in a very interesting space in the West Village, Alta attracts a very hip crowd – the good-looking set down for good food and good wine. The menu is intimidating, to say the least. One large page chock-a-block with small plate items ranging from toasted sourdough bruschetta with ricotta and tomato confit, rabbit terrine with pea orzo, fried goat cheese balls, brussel sprouts, and sea scallops to asparagus tempura. The entire selection is inspired by Moroccan fare, yet inspiration is clearly taken from Western European and Asian cuisines.

The food is almost uniformly tasty, although in disappointingly small portions, even for tapas. The only ‘miss’ my friend and I had was the rabbit terrine which was just far too gamey and tough with not enough flavor or moisture. Even the cheesecake, while very cheesy, was good!

My biggest surprise, and this is my own personal taste taking over here, was the very large selection of rose wine by the glass. They had at least 10 options – we had 3 that were all different and all good! A lovely option for a hot summer night…

In terms of the setting, Alta is on 2 floors, a subterranean bar and main dining room lit by lanterns and candlelight and a second floor with tables surrounding the atrium of the main dining room and a back room, accessed through the kitchen (…? – does the health board know about this? I wonder…). We sat in this back room – it was much quieter and very charming with small intimate tables overlooking the street below.

The service was quick, quiet, efficient, and unobstrusive!

64 W. 10th St, West Greenwich Village, New York NY 10011 (212) 505 7777

Alta on Urbanspoon