At Baraka in Cambridge, a meal flavored by memory
Once upon a time, in the late ’90s, Baraka Cafe was a North African restaurant tucked away on Pearl Street, just outside Central Square. It was a brick-lined nook, dim inside, and romantic: The food was perfumed with spices and rose petals; the pacing of the meal was slow. There was plenty of time to gaze into each other’s eyes while every once in a while wondering when your tagine would arrive. If you were seeing someone who maybe you oughtn’t quite be seeing, and thus perhaps oughtn’t quite be seen with, this was the perfect place to rendezvous (or so I have heard). It felt hidden, like a secret, although it wasn’t. It just felt that way.
It stayed like that for a long time: decades. Until, in 2016, it relocated to a space on Mass. Ave. between Harvard and Porter squares. I hadn’t been back since. I guess I was attached to the old space. I guess I wanted to preserve it as it had been for me at a certain time in my life, that sequestered nook filled with the scent of spices.
In the old Boston Globe building, my desk was in a dingy back-room cubicle constructed of tall partitions. The ceiling collapsed once, and the tiles were growing what was possibly toxic mold, but it was cozy and protected, like a ship’s cabin with bad carpet. Then the Globe moved to the most beautiful office, with an open floor plan, surrounded by tall windows and elevators that actually work, and it’s gorgeous and sleek and a vast improvement in every way, and yet sometimes I miss that dingy little warren for no other reason than nostalgia and the fact that I spent so much time there.
When I finally went to the “new” Baraka earlier this month, it was a little bit like that. It’s a very nice space, a lot more open and with better light. It just feels different being on the main drag. The secret-that-wasn’t-a-secret is out.
There are definite advantages here. For one, you can drink wine with your meal, thanks to the addition of a liquor license. Yet I don’t. There among the Champagnes and Bordeaux and bottles from Lebanon and Morocco is cherbet, a fresh-squeezed lemonade fragranced with rose petals and mint. Its sheer deliciousness is intoxicating, no alcohol necessary. It was one of my favorite things about Baraka, and it would feel wrong to come here and not order it. One sip — floral, tart, and sweet — and I’m back in that nook once again. Memory lives within walls, but it’s also encoded in tastes. It doesn’t really matter where Baraka is, so long as there is cherbet on the menu.
Anyway, so much is the same. The restaurant is still presided over by executive chef Alia Meddeb, who belongs to one of Boston’s most influential culinary lineages. She is the sister of Moncef Meddeb, the founder of L’Espalier, who recently passed away. Before opening Baraka, Alia Meddeb cooked at L’Espalier, as well as her brother’s 8 Holyoke and Aigo Bistro (where Ana Sortun of Oleana fame also worked), among other restaurants. Omar Bouibegh is Baraka’s chef de cuisine.
The pace is still leisurely, with plenty of time to talk: over plates of bedenjal mechoui, a chunky, lustrous dip of smoked eggplant with roasted red peppers and labneh; while fork-dueling over sweet-savory b’stilla, crisp phyllo wrapped with chicken, almonds, cinnamon, and the spice mixture ras el hanout; while sipping mint tea poured from a silver pot into small glasses. You can come here and order nothing but small plates, from the spicy lamb sausage merguez to couscous with eggplant to fried calamari with olives, harissa, and herbs. There are also more substantial dishes: a whole sea bass, tagines of lamb with sweet dried fruit and chicken with artichokes, olives, and lemon confit.
The service is still a little quirky, a little awkward. A sign on the front door indicates Baraka is searching for a “professional server.” I acknowledge that’s probably a good idea, business-wise, but I’m also charmed by the not-entirely-polished quality of the experience. It feels very human.
In my memory, Baraka’s food is a bit more precise, the flavors a bit more balanced. I don’t know if that’s accurate. Nostalgia is a powerful seasoning. Also romance. Who wanted to eat, anyway?
Out in the open, an admirable number of years down the line, Baraka isn’t the same as it ever was. I wouldn’t really want it to be. Restaurants should evolve. But I am still grateful for tall glasses of cherbet, slightly syrupy with sugar, bright lemon weighted with the dusky flavor of rose petals, just exactly as I remember it.
1728 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-868-3951, www.barakacuisine.com