If you have ever traveled overseas and left the tourists behind in search of a local restaurant, you know this perplexing menu routine: You sit down, get a menu, order, and an agreeable waiter tells you it’s not available. You order again, again not available. After the third try, you ask for whatever they have in the kitchen. And what you get is usually amazingly good. The menu seems to be a formality no one is paying much attention to except you.
That’s not exactly what’s going on at Moroccan Hospitality restaurant, the welcoming spot in Somerville. But the kitchen isn’t making some of the items listed on menu, and there’s a little confusion about what is available, more in communicating with some waitstaff. But when you get the food, it’s beautiful, richly seasoned, and made with care.
Moroccan Hospitality moved from Malden in June. It was there for three years, but sisters and owners Nouzha Ghalley and Amina Ghalley McTursh thought they were too far away from their customers, hence the move.
The new spot has been decorated with glass and metal wall sconces that offer low lighting (too dim for some). Overlapping pillows along banquettes are covered in pretty silver, gray, and orange fabrics. Burgundy and tangerine paint is on the walls, which are hung with traditional ceramic plates, and lacy metal table lamps hold votive candles. A tray is lined with the small tea glasses you see all over Morocco, ready to be filled with sweetened mint tea.
The sisters are ladling out excellent tagines and big plates of extraordinarily light couscous, made with halal lamb, beef, and poultry. The women also have a way with bread and phyllo. Thick, warm, slices of crusty semolina bread, baked here daily, which we love, arrive with a plate of chopped olives tossed with garlic, cumin, and paprika.
Chicken bastila ($6.99) is a treasure: a little phyllo packet dusted with cinnamon and sugar and filled with shredded chicken and almonds, seasoned with cilantro and saffron. For this little dish alone, the labor is crazy intensive. Beef cigars ($6.99) are two long rolls made with ground beef, onions, cinnamon, cilantro, and raisins, the pastry wonderfully flaky, perhaps a little too buttery.
Tagines come with an eggplant and tomato relish, but otherwise plates are unadorned. The idea is to order one tagine and one couscous between two, so you have vegetables and couscous to go with the tagines.
On the tagine menu, lamb with prunes ($15.99) is a big shank with tender prunes stuffed with almonds, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and served with intense pan juices. Chicken with onions, raisins, and tomatoes ($13.50) arrives with a half-chicken topped with deliciously sweet caramelized onions mixed with dark raisins and tomatoes. A crisp-skin roast half-chicken with olives and preserved lemons ($12.99) will have you spooning up juices from the tagine like soup.
The classic bowl of harira, called lahrira here ($3.99), is a blend of spicy lentils, chickpeas, tomatoes, and morsels of lamb. When we’re told that the other soup on the menu isn’t available, we order another harira, which is totally different from the first. Turns out the second bowl is vegetarian. We ask for cups to share the soup and they bring tea glasses.
But this is what you want to have happen in a restaurant that’s operating as if it were in its country of origin. You want to divide your soup? Make do with glasses.
Lamb couscous ($15.99), which usually comes with shank, arrives one night with bony pieces of meat (the women couldn’t get shank so they cut up their own lamb). A lamb with barley couscous has the same chewy cuts. (I feel like a spoiled American even mentioning this.) If you want chicken couscous, you can order the chicken tfaya with caramelized onions ($13.60), which is on the menu, or just say “chicken couscous” ($14.99), which isn’t on the menu and appears with a golden half-chicken and big chunks of rutabaga, carrot, and cabbage, sitting on glistening saffron-tinted couscous, which will be the best you’ve ever had.
You will not always find this quality, even in Morocco, nor this touch with phyllo, bread, and little pastries. Put up with a little confusion. Nothing is lost in translation.Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.