A plea to kick up the heat
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  August 26, 2009

GO FISH The sharmoula is one of the better entrées: a fantastic piece of white fish served in a tasty tomato-onion sauce.

Tajine | 1105 Mass Ave, Cambridge | 617.520.2080 | Open daily, 5:30–10:30 pm | No credit cards | No liquor | Ramped access | No valet parking
With visions of spices of the souk, we are apt to imagine that Moroccan food is as spicy as that of Mexico or Ethiopia. In fact, it's often surprisingly mild, but Tajine — named for the conical casserole used to make stews — opens with several dishes at the edge of bland. Some items are ready for prime time, if not for Oleana. But in this below-street space rather outside of Harvard Square that has eaten a lot of restaurants over the decades, Tajine better kick it up.

Things started well for us with cups of sweetened mint tea ($3) like the ones you get from the rug dealers. A reasonably rich harrira ($5.50) soup is just the thing for breaking the day's fast as we begin Ramadan. The tomato base is enriched with a bit of parsley, chick peas, and a spoon of yogurt. Beet salad ($7) relies on a lot of parsley, but it's a nice appetizer. My pick, though, would be the "cigars" ($8), which are similar to little tamales with a meaty filling. Zalouk ($7), a warm eggplant salad with good flavor, needs one emergent spice — I'm nominating cumin — to put it over the top.

On the down side, the hummus at Tajine ($7), while fresh-tasting, is about the dullest hummus out there: no lemon, no splash of acid sumac, possibly not even any tahini sesame paste.

Or maybe it's a style. Maybe there is a region in Morocco where they couldn't afford so many spices, and developed a more Japanese esthetic, with basic ingredients emphasized by micro-spicing. That's certainly my impression of the couscous with chicken and vegetables ($15). This type of pasta is always subtle, and here gets just a wisp of flavor from being steamed over the chicken-and-vegetable stew, itself like a well-made New England boiled dinner. The carrots, cabbage, and slices of turnip were just au point, and the chunks of sautéed white chicken meat were delicious if bland.

Fish sharmoula ($16) was better than that. It was an excellent piece of white fish — could be cod, but probably Chilean sea bass — in a tasty tomato-onion sauce. Getting down to tajines, the beef and lamb with prunes ($17) had good flavor. The chicken and preserved olives ($16) brought more white meat and green olives, the latter not unlike the pickled varieties found in supermarkets. Maybe they should switch from olives to preserved lemons, which are easily made in a few days and quite a bit sharper.

Main-dish portions are not large, but there is good white rice to make it a meal. I like the prices for Harvard Square, though those accustomed to cheaper Moroccan restaurants in other cities, or cheap ethnic food in general, may not. There is no beer or wine, either because of Muslim piety or licensing issues. Water is frequently refilled, though be careful with the couscous because that stuff swells up inside you.

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