My first encounter with a real Moroccan tagine was 30 years ago at the home of a taxi driver who invited me to dinner with his family in Fes.
We sat in a circle on the floor around a chicken his mother had cooked with onions, as the scent of cinnamon and saffron filled the small room. She took from the pot that looked like the bent length of a drainpipe found under the sink and with the proud grin of a host as she introduced the most sought-after meal to her guests, set it up. my disc. That’s the entire neck of the chicken. My polite smile turned into a real one after I began pulling the tender dark meat strands from the bones and eating them with shredded whole grain khobz, a low-rise bread that is perfect for drinking tagine juice.
In two weeks of traveling through Morocco, I have never eaten anything better than that chicken neck, although a few nights later lamb and quince cooked by the same woman. However, neither tagine is made in the actual tagine, the two-piece clay vessel that shares its name with the aromatic stews as its main product. If my server owns one of those, I’ve never seen it. When tagine is on the menu, it’s made in a wide aluminum pot.
Since then, I don’t care much about what my ceramic pots are cooked in. I appreciate the look of traditional ceramic vases, whether their lids are shaped like an inverted funnel, heavy and geometric, or cast in a more modern, tall style with sloping sides that make them look like Cooling towers of nuclear power plants. I’m more interested in what’s underneath, the fruit and the meat and the harmony of the spices turning into steam when the lid is raised.
So I don’t mind too much when I suspect that the slogans at Dar Yemma, a shiny, new Moroccan restaurant in Queens, is not cooked in the glazed earthen pots they are served in or not at all. For example, sesame seeds and toasted almonds dotted the lamb tagine, ostensibly last-minute additions. I also wondered about the rose-scented dried plums and dried apricots around the sheep. With rose water, adding a few drops can take a dish from glamorous to overbearing. This fruit applies just enough perfume to get everyone’s attention, without spilling over into its mutton or its rich sauces. These little details and others have made it a tagline that captures the nuances of Moroccan kitchen charm in ways I rarely find in New York.
Dar Yemma opened in February on the strip of North African businesses on Steinway Street in Astoria. Although the area is often referred to as Little Egypt, it is possible to make a strong claim to calling it Little Morocco. This happens to be the name of another Moroccan restaurant in the area near a Moroccan travel agency, near a Moroccan sandwich shop, near a Moroccan grocery store where you can buy yourself a painted and glazed ceramic tagine.
The menu at Dar Yemma continued at some point. A page is given to the appetizer wrapped in phyllo paper. Got a bastila the size of a teacup, filled with chopped almonds and dried chicken. Preferably the cigar-shaped, flaky cakes; one was topped with fresh cheese and coriander, the other with lightly seasoned lamb and vermicelli, giving the stuffing a fun mild sourness that would play well with delicate sheets of phyllo.
But it is possible to skip long sections of the menu. The best of the salads is obviously the zaalouk, a pile of eggplants cooked with tomatoes and red peppers in olive oil until they surrender. Zaalouk is a great dip for torn khobz; it even goes well with what is perhaps supposed to be a french baguette but would make most New Yorkers look like a hero sandwich.
The cucumber-tomato salad needs more herbs and lime juice. I don’t know of anything that can solve the terrible carrot and beet salad.
There’s not much fun in the watery and less convincing harira. From the grill, keep only tough pieces of beef and shredded lamb, purple, with almost no flavor.
Dar Yemma is a tagine expert, whether the menu knows it or not. Some of the other services can be messy, but tagine is great.
Had the chicken with green olives and preserved lemon, the classic of tagine. Olives are more acidic than lemons, and have a floral rather than fruity aroma.
The rich rosy shrimps come in a bright red tomato sauce, seasoned very lightly, in addition to fresh coriander. For the beef livers, the kitchen creates a completely different ketchup, a thick gravy with offal. The spices in it are so tightly integrated that you can only guess their identities. Cinnamon? Paprika? Not everyone likes a well-cooked liver, but if the liver becomes firm and chewy then this is the right dipping sauce.
The ingredients at Dar Yemma are halal, and the restaurant seems to attract Muslim New Yorkers from countries outside of Morocco, giving it a cosmopolitan atmosphere. (The owner, Saber Bouteraa, is from Algeria.) There are framed mirrors on the walls and an intricate arrangement of colored lights, recessed into the ceiling, which looks as if it belongs in a small discotheque; it always seemed ready to break into a timed-pulsing laser performance of the music. A video screen on the back wall sometimes plays karaoke videos and sometimes shows Moroccan tourist scenes: Jemaa el-Fnaa’s snake charms, Chefchaouen’s blue alleys, leather sandals, sand.
The pastry case in the front window can be filled with European desserts such as tiramisù and chocolate tarts, or with baklava, almond cigars and other Moroccan sweets. Otherwise, it could be empty. Either way, there’s an argument to be made for ending up with hot mint tea, and another, a more convincing one, I think, for ordering mint tea in the first place and drinking it. over night.