The tagine is something of a unicorn in the kingdom of food. Many people will recognize the word as referring to a stew of Moroccan or other north African provenance, but it also refers to the pot in which the stew is cooked. And, though you may be an inveterate Moroccan-restaurant-goer, chances are you’ve never seen the tagine pot in its full glory. What typically reaches the table is just the lower half of the tagine a kind of serving platter, probably of glazed ceramic, possibly hand-painted.
But the spectacular part of the tagine is the conical top, which looks like a space capsule or a hat from Beach Blanket Babylon. The top is aesthetically striking, but it also is a mechanism for moisture retention; like a still, it captures condensation and routes it back to the dish whence it came. The top has a knob at its peak that resists heat and so enables the cook to lift it up and see what’s going on in there.
I wish the removal of tagine tops would become a standard tableside flourish at Moroccan restaurants, the way lighting saganaki on fire is at Greek places. Tagine de-topping isn’t standard practice at Aicha, at least not yet, but I did thrill to the spectacle, deep in the open kitchen, of a bare-handed chef pulling off the top of a hand-painted ceramic tagine to inspect its contents. The tagine top looked very much like the one I have at home, and perhaps the tagine dish itself was the one that would soon be brought to me. More on this important matter anon.
Aicha opened late in the spring in a storefront space on Polk Street, in that transitional zone between the Civic Center and Russian Hill. The restaurant will definitely be seen as an upgrade to this emulsification-resistant neighborhood. Although it’s small, it’s handsomely appointed a crisp, clean spareness with striking copper accents, and, of course, beautifully authentic tagines.
Authenticity is a central theme at Aicha. The restaurant will do its best "to preserve the authenticity of the cuisine," according to a statement on the Web site. This is never an easy undertaking in California, land of bravura salad-tossing, but so far the place is off to an impressive start. The food is modestly priced and not elaborate or precious, but it does offer an intensity of flavor many kitchens charging two or three times as much might envy.
There is great delight to be found not only among the appetizers, which cost between $3 and $6, but even in the more modest side dishes ($3 each) like the simple-sounding white beans. These are of the smaller, navy-bean size; are expertly cooked al dente (i.e. neither hard nor mushy); and are presented in a creamy, well-seasoned sauce whose glints of redness hint at the presence of paprika or some other extroverted but not bitingly hot red pepper. We do not eat enough beans and legumes in this country, perhaps because we associate them with poverty and the old country (whatever that country that might be), but maybe we would eat more if they were this good.
For just a dollar or three more, you can find yourself feasting on comparably gratifying appetizers. Blanched carrots ($4), are peeled, quartered, and tossed with chermoula, the distinctive north African spice paste that usually includes garlic, preserved lemon, and cumin, along with other herbs and spices. Like beans, carrots (one of the notably health-protecting orange foods) are neglected in our culinary culture and are often relegated to lowly duty in mirepoix or soup stock. But if you served these at a party, you would run out in five minutes.
Possibly even tastier, though not quite as finger-friendly, is taktouka ($4), a plateful of grilled red bell pepper squiggles tossed with some tomato, olive oil, and what the menu cryptically calls "spices." Cumin was in there, certainly, but grilled peppers have such a distinctive and alluring flavor that they don’t really need much else.
Somewhat less impressive yet at the top of the appetizer price scale was an artichoke salad ($6) consisting of pickled artichoke hearts, peppery green olives, crumblings of feta, and lots of immaculate romaine leaves. Lots. The romaine was too much with us and diluted the potency of other players.
It was thought that the b’stilla ($6), a pizzetta-sized round of phyllo stuffed with pistachio chicken and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, was a little too cinnamony. (Frasier‘s Dr. Niles Crane, complaining about a Café Nervosa cappuccino: "Can you believe the incompetence of that man? I very clearly asked for a whisper of cinnamon, and he’s given me a full-throated shout!") But a lamb tagine ($9) tender shanks on the bone, surrounded by little green hills of peas and artichoke hearts was all a heart could desire, even if the plate arrived topless.
Daily, 11:30 a.m.11:30 p.m.
1303 Polk, SF
Credit cards pending; call ahead and bring cash
Hard surfaces mean noise