February 1017, 2000
photo: Michael Legrand
Starrs latest theatrical coup is an adventure in Moroccan cuisine.
by Maxine Keyser
232 Market St., 215-627-5116. Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5-11 p.m.; Thu.-Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight. Bar open 2 a.m. every day. Wheelchair access. Reservations suggested. All major credit cards.
Tan-ge-rine: n. 1. a small, loose-skinned variety of mandarin orange. 2. a deep- or reddish-orange color.
"Tangerine": a hit song, circa 1940, sung by Helen OConnell and Bob Eberly with Jimmy Dorseys orchestra.
Tangerine: a dazzling new restaurant from Stephen Starr, using Morocco as a point of embarkation.
Come with us then, to the "wilder shores of love," down an entranceway of white pebbles lit by candles flickering behind iron grilles. Emerge into a foyer of theatrical proportion, featuring clocks set to different time zones around the world. Pass a wall, composed of candle-filled niches, to various dining areas, separated by filigreed wooden screens and delicate latticework. The leather chairs; lush pillow-strewn banquettes in shades of terra cotta, orange and midnight blue; tables lit from within; more light dappling the walls through cut-velvet curtains all hint of the seraglio. Peek around a marble column, or through a make-believe window in a stone wall to yet another luxurious room, observe the ever-changing spectrum of light, and marvel at the talents of the design team of New Yorks David Schefer and Eve-Lynn Schoenstein, with lighting by Clark Johnson.
Despite all the opulent drapings, and the African wail of the music, there is no whiff of the desert here. When the black-garbed waiter describes the meal, you realize youre in a sophisticated urban venue, not Algiers (the most dangerous city in the world) more likely Paris. As in Starrs other places Buddakan, the Continental, The Blue Angel you are just an actor in a carefully scripted evening. Settle back among the stylish crowd and give yourself up to Moroccan food for neophytes.
Start, perhaps, with a special cocktail, like the Tangerine ($8), a sunny concoction of tangerine puree and stoli vanilla with a bit of club soda, or a citrusy French martini ($8) of stoli oranj and a drop of Lillet. They are fun, but pack plenty of power. With these, a meze platter ($27) is perfect. The chefs assortment of appetizers comes on a hammered brass platter, and there is enough for six people to graze comfortably. Nibble on the inevitable hummus and baba ghanouj spread on pita triangles, or delicious apricot and nut bread. You will find yourself loving fried okra, or pickled eggplant, or a spicy salad of okra, carrots and squash, all heated with harissa, the characteristic Moorish chili pepper and coriander paste. Varied olives taste great with another pita this one spread with the luxurious goo known as brandade, which is a blend of salt cod, potatoes and garlic.
Just to be on the safe side, add in an order of superb crispy calamari ($9) flavored with charmoula (a marinade flavored with parsley and cumin), and a little olive salad. This is one of those cant-stop-eating dishes, but take time out for grilled kabobs of merguez sausage in grape leaves ($10). The sausage bursts with flavor, and the tart leaves are crunchy and contrast well with the creamy red lentils spread beneath them.
Starrs policy, espoused by the waiters, and a good one at that, is that each dish is plentiful enough to share; so you are encouraged to order appetizers and entrees haphazardly, and pass them around. As in the best Chinese restaurants, you get to taste more, and do not leave unsatisfied. So, although the harissa gnocchi ($8.50) are billed as a first course, we include them with our entrees, and find their peppery softness agreeable with sweet dates and a cool salad of celery root.
We skip the traditional bisteeya ($9.50), a cinnamon-y stew of chicken and candied almonds baked under layers of phyllo dough, simply because there are so many more interesting things, and I have always found it to be rather dull. Dont be put off into thinking that Moroccan food is too peppery and hot its spices are soft and usually rounded out with honey, fruit or root vegetables. Example: duck confit couscous ($18.50), bound to be a signature dish, that pairs the velvety, meaty duck leg and the fairly bland couscous with sweet caramelized apples, turnips and prunes. The traditional beef and honey tagine ($19.50) is simply a stew of beef and root vegetables, and it will go down easily as well.
Even a dish that is considered salty, like crispy skin salmon ($22) with its garnish of salsify and olives, gets a nudge of sweetness from a terrific kumquat salad. The filet mignon ($28.50) receives a benediction of balsamic fig sauce, and the duck ($23.50), though tartly sour with preserved lemons, must have an almond and raisin pilaf for balance. Only the gigantic portion of tender, spice-crusted lamb T-bone in a port wine sauce ($26.50) is not discernibly sweet, although the crisp logs of chickpea fries stacked on the plate have their own nutty edge. The wine list, by the way, is tremendously well thought out, featuring a number of wines that are geared to this kind of food, namely an Israeli Chardonnay ($22), a Vouvray from Poniatowski ($48) and a Moroccan Amazir Benum Tir ($22). Again, I find myself leaning toward a wine from the south of France, Chapoutiers spicy, rich Crozes-Hermitage ($55), and its a good choice.
Desserts bring predictable pastries, like mhanncha, or "the snake" ($7), a succulent cylinder of phyllo filled with almond cream and the cold snap of cinnamon ice cream. Far better than the norm is the tangerine chocolate cake ($8) that is all luscious chocolate mousse and wonderfully mouth-puckering tangerine sorbet. Starr makes decisions easy at Buddakan he has a miniature dessert sampler, and here theres a fruit and cookie plate ($8) for those who cant make up their mind. I love the varied cookies, the dip of fragrant rose petal frozen yogurt and the childish pleasure of Turkish Delight. Do not worry about gastric distress from this food; insulin shock is more like it. Chef Chris Painter is full of creative "riffs," which also happens to be the name of a nomadic North African tribe, so pardon the pun.
The music has gotten louder and more Western, but we are so cossetted by the luxurious trappings and excellent service (so rare these days!) that we are loath to leave. It was a meal fit for a sultan, although I dont know if I would want it weekly. Still, I do love the whole package. Tangerine is a destination, and people will be exclaiming over its gorgeous decor and interesting food for some time to come. Judging by the glut at the cloakroom, and the crowd spilling from the lounge when we left, the word is out, and success must follow Stephen Starr, for his work, like Shakespeares most excellent Moor, "excels the quirks of blazoning pens."