At Tanjia, the meal begins with a trickle of water. You hold your hands above an ornate silver receptacle while the server pours blood-warm water from a matching kettle over your fingertips, then offers you a fluffy hand towel. It's an intimate, mothering ritual that prepares you for the equally comforting experience of eating with your hands.
Noting the near-absence of Moroccan restaurants in the East Bay -- there's El Morocco in Pleasant Hill and little else -- Said and Trish Zahid opened Tanjia on Telegraph Avenue at 49th Street four months ago. Zahid comes to Temescal from Casablanca with a detour as head chef at San Francisco's El Mansour.
The Zahids have realized one of the most dramatic restaurant renovations I've seen of late -- a quick-change operation the Trading Spaces team could only dream of pulling off. The wood paneling, tiled floors, and African-print banquettes in the long, dim room I remembered from Tanjia's predecessor, Senegalese restaurant Keur Samba, haven't disappeared. They've just been covered up. From the outside, the blocked windows give no hint that you'll step through the door and into an ornate traditional Moroccan tent: The floors are now covered with woven rugs. The walls are ringed with newly reupholstered banquettes, low glass-topped tables, and squat stools. The center of the tent is left clear for dancing: Arrive at 7 o'clock for the belly dancer's nightly performance.
As with most of the Bay Area's Moroccan restaurants, ordering only involves making one choice: your entrée. The remaining four courses are so set they're printed in the menu. Tanjia prices dinners at $21.95 for the regular entrées and $23.95 for house specials.
Most of the eighteen epigrammatically titled entrées vary only slightly -- would you like lemons, prunes, or honey with your chicken? Lamb, chicken, or vegetable couscous? As Anthony Bourdain described Moroccan cuisine after a trip to Fez, "There may be only a few standard dishes, but infinite room for subtle variations exists."
Like Indian cooks, Moroccan cooks compose their flavors using a wide palette of spices. But in a departure from South Asian cuisine, Chef Zahid's food is all subtle shadings and muted colors. Flickers of cumin or cardamom emerge here and there, but in general the spices blend into a meaty, rich whole.
The meal starts with a bowl of harira, lentil soup in a thin but hearty broth tinted red by tomatoes and paprika, then moves on to a quartet of salads. Thick slices of carrots are cooked just until the rawness fades, and then tossed with lemon and coriander. Crunchy cucumber spears are dressed in a lightly sweet vinaigrette, grainy with ground sesame. The roast eggplant puréed with garlic and tomatoes didn't have much character one night, but the next night pulsed with spices. Similarly, one night's sharply defined salsa of tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions, and cumin, all flash and tingle, faded the next, failed by winter tomatoes. You scoop the salads onto chunks of a freshly baked, soft white bread with a thick, glossy crust. On one night, fennel seeds scattered throughout the loaf added a haunting sweetness to everything we tasted.
The third course consists of a bastilla (or basteeya), a flat disk wrapped in flaky filo-like pastry leaves and sprinkled with powdered sugar and a crosshatch of cinnamon. Inside, the free-form pie is stuffed with shredded chicken bound with almonds and scrambled egg, which form into loose curds when the pie is baked. The sugar and cinnamon on top do not turn the savory sweet, but rather bring out the pie's meatiness.
You can request a fork or spoon with your meal, but you won't need a knife -- the food is cooked to unctuous tenderness, so that bread and fingers can easily pull it apart. Couscous is to be eaten with the thumb and first two fingers of the hand. Gather the couscous and bits of meat into a ball. Then form your index and middle fingers into a curved scoop, pick up the ball, bring your hand to your mouth -- leaning over the plate isn't rude here, but necessary -- and push the food in with your thumb. (It's considered rude to lick your fingers, however, which is where the fluffy towels come in handy.)
Zahid's freshly steamed couscous has character, unlike the mush most of us prepare from the box. Though the mass is soft and fluffy, each grain remains distinct and flavorful. The chicken couscous is sprinkled with golden raisins and chickpeas and crowned with a half Cornish game hen. The skin on the braised bird toughened as it was reheated in the oven, but the long-stewed meat underneath easily pulled off the bone.
I found my seafood in sharmoula sauce disappointingly bland. I had to check Paula Wolfert's classic Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco out of the library to confirm that sharmoula sauce, which I've eaten elsewhere, should be bright with chopped parsley and cilantro; Tanjia simmered its prawns and bay scallops in a overly buttery mush of cooked-down onions and root vegetables, with not a speck of green anywhere.
I tried three takes on the lamb. Lamb tagine -- named after the shallow, conically domed cooking vessel in which it was (traditionally) prepared and (currently) served -- was superb, a moist, meaty shank covered in caramelized onions. We used chunks of bread to scoop up some of the dusky, mildly sweet sauce, which contained quiet notes of cardamom and cloves. In "lamb with lemons," preserved lemons and kalamata olives created a bright, salty broth underneath that didn't quite merge with the meat's muskiness. Aided by a robust blend of spices, the broth tempered the sweetness of the honey coating the third variation, "lamb with honey."
The meal ends with a simple dessert: deep-fried bananas in a light, lacy crust drizzled with honey. The server accompanies them with lightly sugared mint tea poured into tiny glasses from a kettle held several feet above the table. She returns after dessert with a second kettle, this one containing warm water, for a final round of hand-washing, followed by a spritz of rose water so that you leave smelling like your grandmother on a Sunday morning.
On the best of nights, the courses follow each other leisurely. When the kitchen is moving slowly, dinner drags on, especially if you're sitting with folded legs on one of the tuffets, occasionally setting off a painful series of crackles and pops as you ungracefully shake them out. The dining room reaches peak capacity just before the belly-dance performance. One night we arrived just after the last dance, and the service proceeded smoothly. On another visit, however, my friends and I arrived in the middle of the rush. Our servers, who had been so considerate on the first visit, got so distracted dodging children and writhing dancers that they could barely attend to us; our meal took more than three hours.
We sat through a twitchily athletic performance by a taut-abbed dancer, enjoying the reactions of the four-year-olds across the room more than the performance. They sat immobile on their stools, mouths spilled open, for the first twenty minutes, and then began to wriggle and wave almost as energetically as their role model.
The dancing, exotic decor, and elaborate dinner ritual make a meal at Tanjia a performance. It's fun, and kids will adore it, but you may not have the stamina to return often. Happily, the amusement-park approach to dining is backed by solid cooking.