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Spicy, Savory and Sweet

by B.A. Nilsson on April 19, 2012

Tara Kitchen, 431 Liberty St., Schenectady, 708-3485, tarakitchen.com. Serving lunch 11:30-2 Tue-Fri, dinner 5-8 Tue-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Moroccan

Entrée price range: $12 (black-eyed peas with tomatoes) to $21 (shrimp tagine)

Ambiance: intimate and friendly

The tagine is a basic yet elegant Moroccan cooking vessel consisting of a cylindrical clay base, like a cazuela or a flowerpot base, topped by a unique clay cone fashioned with a handle on top. Unlike conventional sautée recipes, which may see onions and garlics and the like cooked first, with other items added later, a tagine—the name refers both to the vessel and the resultant dish—can call for an all-at-once approach, typically with longer-cooking items like carrots on the bottom. That conical top concentrates the heat and moisture in a productive way, spreading flavors while giving the ingredients a roasted texture. Tagines can be cooked in the oven or on a low flame, but you’ll see them on the stovetop at Tara Kitchen, their bland terra-cotta exteriors revealing nothing of the marvelous process going on within.

Some months ago I wrote about a few new Moroccan cookbooks, and lamented the lack of any such restaurant in the area. Almost immediately, I heard from Aneesa Waheed, who said she and her husband would be opening just what I was seeking in the near future. Three months ago, tiny Tara Kitchen quietly opened its doors on Schenectady’s Liberty Street, not far from the city’s post office. A handful of tables run along one wall by the entrance, across from which is a lunch counter at which you also can dine. Up a short flight at the back is a small room with four more tables. As we discovered on a recent visit, the place can fill up fast.

Waheed herself is Indian; her mother operates the Indian restaurant Taj Mahal, located not far away on Jay Street. But Aneesa’s husband, Muntasim Shoaib, is Moroccan, and the couple spent a year living there while sorting out immigration issues. She fell in love with the local cuisine and learned to cook it herself, so after leaving a career in publishing in Manhattan to move to this area, she began expanding her horizons by offering Moroccan food at the Schenectady Farmer’s Market, which she did for three years before opening this restaurant. And you’ll still find her at the market on Sundays.

Some of the signature ingredients in Moroccan cookery are preserved lemons, small slices of which add a uniquely tart flavor to a chicken tagine that’s on the menu ($16); harissa, a peppery sauce that made its way from Tunisia and is featured in the appetizer of marinated olives ($4), and ras el hanout, a spice blend unique to each who makes it, featured on the grilled fish appetizer ($5).

I buy my ras el hanout from Kalustyan’s in Manhattan, and its listed ingredients include anise, fennel, allspice, cardamom, clove, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and black pepper. As is to be expected from an experienced chef, Waheed makes her own, and it sits stoveside, ready to be applied to any number of the dishes headed your way. Dishes that also include the signature are the appetizer of eggplant, roasted garlic and tomatoes mashed into a dip ($3) that exemplifies the mix of savory and sweet reflected throughout the cuisine, but so shrewdly balanced that your palate is teased by little contrasting notes throughout the meal. (This is what makes the spice blending such a personalized art.)

Entrées also include kebabs of chicken ($16), lamb ($18) or shrimp ($18), each served with vegetables and couscous, and a cooked-on-the-grill presentation of whitefish, another testament to the tastebud gavotte that ras el hanout provokes.

Then there are the tagines. What you see simmering on the stove hardly prepares you for the sight of the reveal, when the single-serving tagine is placed before you, the lid removed, and a plume of steam mushroom-clouds up and scatters across the ceiling. And then you’re contemplating something like one of my Moroccan favorites, lamb meatballs in a just-made tomato sauce into which eggs are cracked shortly before serving ($19). It’s a national favorite because it’s so powerfully rich and acknowledges how nicely lamb and tomatoes go together.

Want something similar but meatless? Black-eyed peas in a tomato-onion sauce is $12. Chicken is offered with mixed vegetables, red lentils or, as noted, preserved lemons ($16 each); shrimp is finished in a tomato sauce ($21) and there’s an $18 tagine of fish, potatoes, tomatoes and olives.

Next time I’ll go for the lamb with honey, prunes and apricots ($21), but I did get to sample the similar eggplant tagine with prunes, honey and chickpeas ($14), which is one of the finest combinations of fruit and vegetables I’ve tasted. You’ll have a small, decorative glass of honey-sweetened mint green tea freshened throughout the meal, new batches of which are brewed to keep the flavor fresh.

Moroccan cuisine had a short run in Albany two years ago, in an unfortunate location on Central Avenue. Schenectady’s Liberty Street isn’t exactly a showplace either, but it’s not far from the always-eager Jay Street, and Tara Kitchen is so unique and well-thought-out that I hold out great hope for its endurance and growth. Keep in mind that it’s very small, and attention such as I’m giving it might tend to crowd it for a while. But I guarantee it’s going to make a tagine enthusiast out of you.