My first encounter with a real Moroccan tagine dates back 30 years to a taxi driver who invited me to dinner with his family in Fez.
We sat in a circle on the floor around a chicken her mother had simmered with onions, while the aroma of cinnamon and saffron filled the small room. She fished out what looked like the twisted length of a drainpipe found under a sink from the pot and, with the proud smile of a host presenting the most wanted portion to a guest, put it in my plate. It was the whole neck of the chicken. My polite smile came to fruition after I started pulling the tender chunks of dark meat off the bones and eating them with torn pieces of whole-grain khobz, a low-rising bread that’s perfect for drinking the jus from a tagine.
In two weeks of traveling through Morocco, I have never eaten anything more delicious than this chicken neck, although it was matched a few nights later by a tagine of lamb and quince cooked by the same woman. No tagine, however, was prepared in a true tagine, the two-part clay vessel that shares its name with the fragrant and spicy stews that are its main product. If my hosts had one, I’ve never seen it. When tagine was on the menu, it was made in a large aluminum pot.
Since then, I don’t care what my tagines are cooked in. I enjoy the look of traditional ceramic vessels, whether their lids are inverted funnel-shaped, severe and geometric, or cast in the more modern style, tall with sloping sides that make them look like cooling towers in a power plant nuclear. I’m more interested in what’s underneath, the fruits and meats and spice harmonies that carry over into the steam that rises when the lids are lifted.
So I wasn’t very bothered when I thought that the tagines at Dar Yemma, a shiny new Moroccan restaurant in Queens, aren’t cooked in the glazed earthenware pots they’re served in, or not entirely. The sesame seeds and toasted almonds scattered over the lamb shank tagine, for example, were clearly last minute additions. I also wondered about the rosewater flavored prunes and dried apricots around the lamb. With rosewater, a few extra drops can take a dish from charming to overbearing. This fruit carried just enough flavor to be noticed, without spilling over onto the lamb or its rich sauce. These little details and more made it a tagine that captured the alluring nuance of Moroccan cuisine in a way I have rarely found in New York.
Dar Yemma opened in February on the North African business strip of Steinway Street in Astoria. Although the region is often referred to as Little Egypt, a strong competing claim could be made to call it Little Morocco. It happens to be the name of another Moroccan restaurant in the neighborhood which is near a Moroccan travel agency, which is near a Moroccan sandwich shop, which is near a Moroccan grocery store where you can buy a painted and enamelled ceramic tagine.
Dar Yemma’s menu goes on for a long time. One page is devoted to appetizers wrapped in layers of phyllo paper. There’s a teacup-sized bastila filled with chopped almonds and dried chicken. Better than that, the cigar-shaped puff pastry briouates; one is stuffed with fromage frais and cilantro, the other with lightly spiced lamb and vermicelli, which gives the stuffing a playful little bounce that plays well with the fragile phyllo sheets.
But long menu passages can be skipped. The best of the salads is clearly the zaalouk, a pile of eggplant cooked with tomatoes and red peppers in olive oil until they surrender. Zaalouk is a great dipping sauce for torn pieces of khobz; it’s even good with what’s probably meant to be French bread but will strike most New Yorkers like a cut-out hero roll.
Cucumber-tomato salad needs more herbs and lemon juice. I don’t know of anything that would fix the terrible carrot and beet salads.
There’s not much joy in watery, unconvincing harira. From the grill, tough beef skewers and crumbly, purplish, almost flavorless merguez should be left alone.
Dar Yemma is a tagine specialist, whether the menu knows it or not. Some of the other offerings may be hit or miss, but the tagines are wonderful.
There is the chicken with green olives and candied lemons, this classic of the tajine repertoire. Olives are more tart than lemons, which have a more floral scent than fruity.
The large prawns arrive in a bright red tomato sauce that is very lightly seasoned except for the fresh cilantro. For the beef liver cubes, the kitchen makes an entirely different tomato sauce, a thick dark sauce with giblet funk. The spices it contains are so tightly integrated that you can only guess their identity. Cinnamon? Paprika? Not everyone likes well-done liver, but if the liver is going to be firm and chewy, this is the right kind of sauce for it.
Dar Yemma’s ingredients are halal, and the restaurant seems to attract Muslim New Yorkers from countries other than Morocco, giving it a cosmopolitan feel. (The owner, Saber Bouteraa, is originally from Algeria.) There are framed mirrors on the walls and a complicated arrangement of colored lights, recessed into the ceiling, that looks like it belongs in a small nightclub; it always seems poised to break through in a laser show that beats to the beat of the music. A video screen on the back wall sometimes plays karaoke videos and sometimes shows a reel of Moroccan tourism: the snake charmers of Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the blue lanes of Chefchaouen, the leather sandals, the sand.
The pastry display in the display case can be loaded with European-style desserts like tiramisù and chocolate tart, or baklava, almond cigars and other Moroccan sweets. However, it can be empty. Anyway, there’s an argument to be made for ending with hot mint tea, and another argument, more convincing, I think, for ordering mint tea from the start and drinking it the whole night.