What is a Moroccan tagine? Two things, really.
One is a cooking vessel — a round plate of glazed clay with a fitted conical dome. Steam swirls under the dome, condenses and then trickles down the lid’s sides to the circumference of the plate and rejoins the simmering juices. Yet a tagine is also the preparation — the name you give the melded braise beneath the lid. It is both the container and the tasty business it contains.
The best tagine you can find in the metro area is at Imane Moroccan Restaurant in Duluth. Named for the coastal city of Rabat, this tagine ($9.99 at lunch) comes to the table with wicker trivet and a warning not to touch. The waitress lifts the 2-foot-high lid to reveal a fragrant, bubbling plateful of small meatballs and fast-setting eggs in tomatoey sharmoula sauce. You’ll never finish it, you think, and then you can’t stop, spearing one beefy meatball after another, swiping house-made semolina bread through the sauce, prying crisp edges of egg from the plate, all under a hovering cloud of steam. There is something special in the flavor of food cooked in clay.
The other tagines at Imane are good but more typical of Moroccan restaurants — there to be beautiful serving dishes. There is no trivet, no warning, and the lid comes off with a tacit voilà to reveal a nicely plated lamb shank or salmon fillet that had been cooked in the kitchen.
Such are Moroccan restaurants in America — places that first and foremost seduce diners with their trappings. Carpets, cushions, filigreed metalwork furniture, lustrous fabrics, belly dancers and, yes, decorative tagines are all part of the vision of exotic otherness. I suppose there are Moroccan restaurants in France (and in Morocco, for that matter) where the thick overlay of atmosphere is the predominant seasoning to the food. It is a great cuisine for tourists.
At first look, the richly decorated Imane appears to be another den of exotica, but it also proves itself as a fine place to explore a cuisine woefully underrepresented in Atlanta. Don’t expect the six-course rigmarole and high prices you may have encountered in other Moroccan restaurants; do go for the food.
Owner-chef Imane Sannoun, who opened the place about a year ago, cooks to satisfy her compatriots as well as the many Americans and Levantine Arabs who’ve discovered it. That means you’ll find some only marginally convincing falafel, baba ghannouj and whatnot to satisfy her customers, but you should really focus on the true Moroccan fare — the couscous, the salads and the tagines.
If you go on Friday or Saturday night, the raucous scene will include a peripatetic belly dancer and a fair amount of hookah smoke. At other times, the entertainment comes from a flat-screen television showing Arabic music videos of songstresses with fabulous hair, handsome suitors and villas by the Mediterranean. You settle into banquettes and low chairs around lovely low tables of hammered metal and glass from Marrakesh and drape a satiny burgundy moiré napkin on your protruding knees.
Sannoun’s food tastes fresh and well thought out, though it doesn’t zing with spice. You want zing? Make sure to ask for a dish of her fiery homemade harissa chile condiment.
Sannoun makes a soul-warming bowlful of harira ($4.99), a tomato-based soup with lentils, chickpeas, wiggly little bits of vermicelli and herbs that dance on the tongue. Also very fine: the maghreb salad ($5.99), a gorgeously composed starburst of red beets, potatoes, carrots and green beans with drizzles of dressing and a deeply fruity flavor of olive oil. A vegetarian could order these two and leave happy.
Fried calamari ($7.99) that my daughter insists on ordering brings another winner. The rings are tender under their crisp, crumbly coating, and their yogurt-based dipping sauce, though milder than mild, grew on me. This kitchen takes care with small things.
It is also shy with seasoning, and I do need to warn you that a few shakes of salt and a bit of harissa may be up to you. I like the chicken couscous ($14.99) for its tender, spice-rubbed half bird, its fluffy mound of clumpless couscous and its fantastic presentation in a double-decker couscousière made of hand-painted yellow clay. The vegetable stew that you use to moisten the couscous, though, is a bland business — carrot, potato and lots of cabbage running away with the show. Seasoning definitely perked it up, but I’m still looking for a couscous to fall in love with somewhere in Atlanta.
Better are the merguez sausages ($15.99) hot off the grill, snappy and spicy. Sannoun brings these skinny lamb sausages (skinny because they’re packed in lamb casing) from Morocco, and they’re some of the best I’ve ever tried, juicy with a sweet heat that blooms on the tongue. If you want a bargain, go for lunch and get the merguez sandwich ($8.99), served in a hot, pillowy pita with crunchy veggies, creamy sauce and a side salad.
Then again, if you don’t want to commit to lamb sausage as your dinner entree, try the assorted grilled platter ($18.99) that comes heaped with enough meat for two people to share, including one sausage. I give two tagines up to the rosy-centered beef brochette and the juicy chicken brochette on the platter. But I found the lamb chop sapped of its juices and the kefta (ground beef) dry and crumbly. I’ve had kefta that sparkles with the flavors of parsley and garlic, and this isn’t it.
Even though they are classified on the menu for their serving vessels only, I have really enjoyed the two lamb shank tagines I’ve tried here. Sannoun braises them just to the point between cuttable and fall-off-the-bone tender, yet manages to render out all the fat. They are marvels of good technique. The Marrakesh ($16.99) comes with a braise of artichoke heart and sweet peas in a tingly sauce, while the Casablanca Mrozia ($16.99) opts for sweet spices, raisins, honey and almonds. I promise you, it does not taste like lamb fruitcake but rather that elusive missing link between sweet and savory that we all search for.
I wish I could say the same for the chicken b’stilla ($14.99), but this version of the crisp poultry pie blanketed with powdered sugar and cinnamon is not my favorite. (Often Moroccan places serve this as an appetizer.) I think this dish only appeals when its phyllo crust shatters in a cumulus of sugar that contrasts with the steamy, savory insides. But this pie has a dense and drably seasoned filling and cuts without a lot of shatter, so that chicken-salad-meets-Cafe-du-Monde-beignet thing feels strange.
The restaurant serves a few Moroccan wines, as well as others identified only by grape and country of origin. If you don’t want a $10 glass of mystery German riesling, you might be better with a Dos Equis on draft or a small pot ($3.50) of the excellent green tea flavored with mint and sugar.
No, the waitress doesn’t pour the tea from a vertiginous height as you may have seen at other Moroccan restaurants, but Imane really isn’t that kind of place. For once, the focus is as much on the food as the show.
-by John Kessler, Food & More blogIMANE MOROCCAN RESTAURANT 3455 Peachtree Industrial Blvd., Duluth Food: Moroccan as well as some Middle Eastern dishes; the food can be a little under seasoned but it is well-prepared. Service: Very friendly but understaffed, so it can be slow when a few tables arrive at once. Best dishes: Rabat tagine, maghreb salad, harira soup, merguez sandwich Vegetarian selections: side dishes, salads, soup and couscous Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays; noon-10 p.m. Sundays; open every other Monday for women only Children: Perfectly fine if you’re cool with the hookahs and weekend belly dancer. Parking: in lot Reservations: Yes, and you’ll need them for Friday and Saturday nights. Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: moderate Patio: yes Takeout: yes