The new Baraka Cafe is lavishly decorated with golden walls, bright straw mats and pillows at plush banquettes, filigree lamps, and curtains with swags and beads. Even the ceiling got full treatment with cocoa and black painted swirls inside an elaborate frame.
The decor is courtesy of chef and owner Alia Meddeb’s business partner, Omar Bouibegh, who owns Fez Home Designs on Harrison Avenue in Boston. After 20 years, Baraka left its spot on Pearl Street in Central Square, Cambridge, last fall and resettled into a former Boca Grande between Harvard and Porter squares.
Meddeb (sister of famed former Boston chef Moncef Meddeb) was raised in France by a mother from Alsace-Lorraine and a Tunisian father. Bouibegh is Moroccan-Berber.
At lunch, you order at a counter. Bouibegh is the dinner waiter for table service.
Baraka’s food is North African, along with popular Middle Eastern dishes like tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ghanoush. The baba ($7) is smooth and smoky, flecked with charred eggplant skin and a mild taste of tahini. Another delicious smoky spread, bedenjal mechoui ($7), mixes roasted eggplant flesh with roasted peppers, sprinkled with parsley.
Karentika ($5) is a dish of pureed chickpeas in a savory custard with a spicy harissa spread, so one is smooth and cool while the other is hot, wonderful together. Za’atar coca ($9) are slices of grilled Berber flatbread, smothered with dark, sweet caramelized onions and the dried herb mix.
At lunch, kafta kebab roll-up ($7.85) is deliciously juicy with ground beef, lettuce, and crunchy vegetables in a hot, grilled tortilla. Marinated, lightly seasoned chicken shawarma ($8.85) comes with a bright salad dressed with a delicious yogurt-tahini dressing.
Meddeb makes the couscous, which is so fine and fluffy it almost slips between the tines of a fork. She says her couscous brings together elements of the way cooks in Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco make it. With vegetables ($14) you get big pieces of eggplant, zucchini, carrots, potatoes, and cabbage, but the dish seems dull. Braised lamb shank ($23) looks stunning in its traditional tagine earthenware pot, garnished with prunes, apricots, and almonds, but the meat isn’t falling off the bone.
Chicken bastilla, one of North Africa’s most famous dishes, originally made with pigeon but now with poultry, is especially pretty as a round individual pastry. Layers of phyllo dough are crisp, the chicken filling nice with almonds, saffron, cinnamon, and the traditional ras el hanout spices. The top is sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar, but when you cut into the layers, the inside is completely savory, the appeal of this unusual presentation.
One of the best things on the dinner menu is melfouf ($19), a delicious heap of merguez sausage, nuggets of grilled lamb and chicken, and tchektchouka, a kind of ratatouille, on a mess of pommes frites with a harissa vinaigrette. There’s a lot going on and every flavor and texture is just right.
There’s so much care taken with this food, and the enthusiastic Bouibegh, the only waiter, majored in charm. But service falls off dramatically as finished plates are left on the table — not just on ours but on the ones beside us — water glasses aren’t filled, and no one is around to flag down if you need something. Meddeb has an exciting new place and few are making these time-consuming Old World dishes. When glitches get fixed, the dining room and the unusual specialties will be in harmony.
1728 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-868-3951, www.barakacafe.com. All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible.
Hours Sun-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Prices Appetizers $5-$9. Roll-ups and plates $5.95-$23. Desserts $7.
What to order Bedenjal mechoui (eggplant spread), baba ghanoush, grilled merguez, karentika (chickpea custard), zaatar coca (flatbread with onions), chicken bastilla (phyllo pie), kafta kabob roll-up (ground beef), melfouf (grilled meats with pommes frites).Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.