The Jewel of Newbury
The spirit of Morocco meets the prices of the Back Bay
by Robert Nadeau
A Moroccan restaurant fits right in on Newbury Street. The
street already has the bustling spirit of a souk, and it has the international
cast to fill all the roles in Casablanca at the first sign of an
international crisis. The Jewel of Newbury is a very good Moroccan restaurant,
and it would be even better if the prices didn't also fit right in with the
ethos of Newbury Street. (Lunch is, of course, a good tactic for getting around
The Jewel of Newbury |
254 Newbury Street (Back Bay), Boston
Open for lunch daily, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.,
and for dinner daily, 5:30 p.m.-midnight
AE, DC, MC, Vi
Outdoor tables one step up from sidewalk level;
dining room 12 steps below sidewalk level
There is some appeal to an overpriced, nicely decorated Moroccan restaurant on
Newbury Street. For instance, so far you can get into it when other restaurants
are full. This is worth paying extra on the check, sometimes.
So is something as good as the merguez appetizer ($8). These spicy sausages
are cheap eats in Paris, but not in such an excellent version. The lean, meaty
quality of these is not to be missed. The four sausages come with an addictive
red-pepper paste, and a milder dip of olive oil with thyme and spices. The same
treated oil is the topping on a platter of pita that serves as the breadbasket,
and on the hummus portion of a Moroccan salad ($12), the rest being cubed
tomato and vegetables dressed with mint. It's a big salad, but not a bargain
even when divided between two diners.
Seafood ginger soup ($7.50), however, is a jewel beyond price. The seafood is
cut into small cubes, but retains the distinctive flavor of each kind of fish
in a broth that is hot and sour. An appetizer of broiled quail ($14) was three
half-quail, handsomely broiled with a hint of spice, but otherwise
unexceptional. Bastela ($11), the celebrated Moroccan pie, was here less
buttery and spicy than I have had it at other Moroccan restaurants in the
United States. Guests just back from Morocco pronounced it authentic.
"Authentic" apparently means that it emphasizes the flavor of the meat, which
would be pigeon in Morocco, but is chicken on Newbury Street. A fine bastela,
but not a crowd pleaser, I fear.
Vegetarian couscous ($18) had tiny grains of pasta as light and fluffy as can
be imagined, quite different from any other couscous I've made or had served in
the US, but the vegetables were generally bland except for a light-green summer
squash. Raisins and chickpeas were the best of a limp lot.
I actually enjoyed the stewed vegetables in the relatively spicy halibut
special ($24). The menu lists a variety of fresh seafood at $24 and $28, but
only three or four kinds are actually available on any given night. The halibut
was an excellent chunk, however, and the okra, zucchini, potato, and tomato had
some intensity over the super-long-grain yellow rice.
This rice was also a highlight of the lamb and chicken tagines ($24 and $22,
respectively). A tagine is a conical casserole dish (and also the name of the
stew cooked in that casserole), and the Jewel uses the real thing, but the
stews themselves were rather bland. A supply of preserved lemons and green
olives would have added some punch. The lamb with prunes was somewhat dry (darn
that healthful, lean lamb!), but had an excellent sauce underneath. The chicken
was better, but either could have done with the spicier vegetables from the
A problem with Moroccan food is that, as with Indian food, the idea is often
better than the reality. Moroccan cooking uses small amounts of a variety of
spices to emphasize natural flavors. This requires chickens and vegetables with
more flavor than the ones we can get delivered on Newbury Street most of the
time. A real souk has fresh spices and live, free-range chickens. It's not
surprising that the halibut won among the entrées, nor that the seafood
soup was very strong among the appetizers, since New England seafood is still
good enough to fill a role in an ancient cuisine.
The Jewel has a wine list, but it is quite expensive. We took the message and
didn't have wine, as beer goes better with this food anyway.
The main dessert is a plate of fruit and sorbet for $7 per person. The
interesting items were fresh dates, which were crunchy and tasted slightly of
dates. Dried dates and giant fresh grapes are always good; under-ripe
nectarines are always bad. Bland strawberries and melon are old acquaintances
by October, so why not use good fall fruit like ripened pears and crisp
McIntosh apples? Berry sorbet is never really impressive, but the idea of fruit
after a meal that might have set couscous expanding within one's stomach is
Our mint tea ($3.50) was beautifully poured in a long, thin stream into
glasses. But the tea itself was shockingly astringent, much too strong even for
Service at the Jewel is attentive and accurate, and much of the staff also
speaks Arabic. Since some dishes, such as our chicken and lamb tagines, are
made with halal meat, the Jewel will be a real oasis for Muslim travelers. The
downstairs room is quite nicely done, with inlaid marble tables, and ornamental
tiles and paintings on the walls. The lighting is somewhat too dark, especially
when older customers must squint to read the menu.
One more issue that deserves mention -- and not just about the Jewel -- is the
disturbing number of restaurants in historic parts of town that do not trouble
themselves about wheelchair access. Add in the number of ramps and elevators
that don't really work -- too steep, too narrow, too small to turn -- and the
wheelchair user has fewer choices than the able-bodied public often realizes.
Even with all the ugly rebuilding in Harvard Square, there are still new
restaurants opening without wheelchair access. And invite a wheelchair user to
lunch in the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, or Chinatown, and you'll get an earful.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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