Argana is named for a village in Morocco, which in turn is named for a tree that bears oily seeds. The restaurant serves argan oil ($3) as a dip with pita breads ($2), but had run out of it on all three of my visits. That illustrates both the instant popularity of this restaurant and the fact that it has been somewhat erratic. A dish may not look the same on a return visit, and the spicing can be quite different too. One critic tasted too much cumin in several dishes. I love cumin and noticed almost none in the same dishes a few weeks later. That said, most of what I had at Argana was excellent, and some of it was almost as good as ideal Moroccan food.
This is a cuisine rich in appetizers, and Argana serves them as such, not only with dinner, but with lunch and brunch, and as bar snacks until 1 a.m. Don’t resist the temptation to have a little of everything on the meza plate ($10). This works for two or more diners, although with more you’ll need to buy another basket or two of pitas. The plate comes with four pita triangles, allegedly grilled with the elusive argan oil. (Argan oil is supposed to taste " nutty. " ) My favorite item is the roasted peppers, although the zaalouk is a very wonderful version of eggplant caviar with coriander seed and cumin. If you order the zaalouk by itself ($7), you get a big round cake of it, garnished with baby-beet leaves and olives. Also, the meza has a very addictive kind of salsa called mechovia ($7 à la carte), and a nice patty of fried mashed potato called maqouda. Ordered separately, the maqouda ($7) comes as three large croquettes, with a central garnish of roasted peppers on a disk of mechovia. The meza plate also offers wonderful black and green marinated olives, and a scoop of ordinary, but good, hummus.
Breaking out of the meza items, there is an appetizer version of chicken b’steeya ($9), the national pigeon pie. It’s probably a little drier than intended with chicken, although the general idea of sweet richness and curry-like spice comes through. Crab cakes safti ($9) are somewhat starchy crab cakes with a decorative white rémoulade sauce, and a little serious red hot sauce.
A surprisingly effective foil for Moroccan spices is the fried calamari ($9). It’s a nice portion of fried rings and tentacles, with a sprinkling of ras el hanout, the vastly complicated spice mixture. Ras el hanout varies from souk to souk, but the stuff I tasted sometimes evoked complex sweet spices, and sometimes had a bit of cumin-chili burn. If that’s not enough, there are two dipping sauces: the foamy, mustardy rémoulade from the crab cakes and a bowl of the red hot sauce.
When you get to the entrées, hang on to the breadbasket of soft rolls. The best thing we sampled was the lamb tagine ($18), a braised shank especially rich in flavor, with plenty of broth to flavor the dish’s artichokes, squash, and peas — and one of those rolls. Or you could borrow some couscous from someone ordering couscous Argana ($22), as the dish provides quite a lot of this deceptively filling pasta. The couscous at Argana is the best I’ve had, outdoing that of the owners’ previous restaurant (Marrakesh), and surpassing even the fine couscous at Tangierino. It’s buttery, light, and very filling. Topped with a heap of braised vegetables, it’s served with two skewers each of excellent marinated lamb, fine ungreasy merguez sausage, and somewhat dried-out marinated chicken.
Seafood-pesto couscous ($21) is surprisingly successful, since the pesto works almost as well with couscous as with linguini, and doesn’t disrupt the scallops and shrimp. We also enjoyed a tagine of sea bass ($19), done with a fennel-and-tomato sauce and lots of mussels. Lately, we haven’t been ordering over-fished Chilean sea bass and asked our server if that’s what it was. She said it wasn’t, but the rich white steak was unmistakable.
The international wine list is decent, although this food does not match easily with wine. (It usually doesn’t have to, as Morocco is predominantly Muslim.) The active bar scene suggests draft Bass Ale ($5), but you won’t be disappointed with a glass of De Loach chardonnay or Domaine du Poujol (both $6 glass/$22 bottle), a dry red from Languedoc. Paraiso pinot noir ($8/glass) begins fruity, but has a short finish with some hot alcohol. The list does not mention vintage years. With dinner you can get Moroccan mint tea ($5) in a small silver pot with a comical soldier-doll tea cozy. The tea is pre-sweetened and served in a small glass. This is the social beverage across North Africa. Moroccan coffee ($3) is spiced; I smelled mostly cinnamon.
Desserts are interesting. My favorite after such rich food is the mint sorbet ($6), which tastes just like the Moroccan mint tea and is quite refreshing cold. Crème brûlée ($6) is a good, serviceable custard garnished with apple slices and mint. M’halbi ($6) is a perfume-y, creamy dessert, like rosewater pudding. Crêpes berbères ($6) look like a lumberjack’s stack of pancakes, but the syrup is orange-honey. Our order was extremely chewy, as though it had been reheated too long in a microwave oven.
Service at Argana still needs to catch up to the restaurant’s early success. Aside from the misinformation about the Chilean sea bass, our waitresses were encouraging and reasonably knowledgeable, but prone to guessing. One speculated that the kitchen, though lacking argan oil to sell as a dip, might have had some on reserve for the pita points on the meza plate. Another thought we could have appetizers at 5:30 p.m. and easily get a table for dinner after a movie at the Kendall Cinema. But when we got back to Argana at 9:40, the line was out the door.
The people in line were no fools. Here’s a restaurant with delicious, exotic food for not a lot of money. Moreover, the setting is beautiful. Large café windows open to the street. Inside, the walls are yellow or blue, the tables are done in intricate tile patterns, the seating is mostly on brocaded cushions, and the music flows between rai and techno, which enhances both the setting and the moment. So do the decorative pieces, including a silver samovar and the obligatory perforated metal lamps, and the brocaded white shirt-jackets worn by the staff.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com