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).