What. Were. We. Thinking?
Despite all the positive press and reviews, somehow we managed to not get around to visiting Tara Kitchen on Liberty in downtown Schenectady until this weekend. It’s right around the corner from Bel Cibo, city hall, post office, etc. So. Good!Two things threw me off: all the mentions of mint in things when they first opened, plus the description of how small it was. I do not like mint. The menu descriptions don’t mention mint anymore, I don’t know how prominent it still is, but it certainly isn’t a mint-o-rama. And, yes, it’s sort of small, but even though it was hopping on Saturday night, a table for two was certainly available. I think 4 tables for two in the front room when you first enter, then several larger tables upstairs and also more tables on a covered deck outside through the back. Long weekend or not, they were busy.It was also interesting how many people seemed to be repeat customers. I mean, it’s not a surprise that people are coming back, given how good the food is (and the service was super friendly, also), but the older clientele embracing this unique (to this area) cuisine was surprising, but wonderful, to see.
The theme, if you’re not aware (and my goal is not to give you a history of the owners or cuisine), is Moroccan. Their dinner menu is both short and diverse. I suggest you take a moment to click through and read these descriptions. Cooked in tagines over a gas stove, you’ve basically got a protein, a veggie, and another ingredient or two that come together in amazing ways.Look at those tagines bubbling away.
Naturally my focus was on the lamb items and I was pretty happy with my choice, although I’d probably try something else next time.The website menu descriptions aren’t as detailed as in the restaurant. What you see (and I had dug in before remembering to get pictures) is the lamb meatballs dish in tomato chermoula with eggs. Their tomato chermoula starts with tomatoes and adds spices, onion, oil, vinegar, sugar, and salt. It’s deeply tomatoey and definitely sweet. Lots of soft onions in the dish as well, plus what I believe were two poached eggs.
The dish arrived in its cast iron bottom blazing, I mean blazing, hot. I waited a bit and still burned my lip when I dunked a corner of toasted pita into the sauce and touched it to my lip. More blowing ensued. The tagines are served with some seasoned rice (tasty!) and toasted pitas (from a bag).
The meatballs were pleasantly seasoned, mild, and delicately hand formed into rough lumps. Definitely no overworking them at play. They easily fall apart under your fork. I spent the meal trying to understand the eggs, though. A quick search turns up all kinds of tagine recipes with poached eggs, so it’s clearly ‘a thing’, but I’m not sure I get it. There’s already protein in the dish. The egg doesn’t add much flavor. It wasn’t any kind of problem, I just didn’t really get what the point was…not just here, but traditionally in the dish. Maybe I’ll ask if we’re ever there on a slow night. Mostly I loved the chermoula. I said I would gladly have eaten a bowl of it with pita and meant it. Tara Kitchen has their sauces and some other items for sale both at the restaurant and at some local stores and markets and I’ll probably pick some up. Really good. My one minor gripe is that the lamb flavor is sort of lost in all the other flavors in the meatballs. Could have been just about any meat. If I’m paying for lamb, I want to taste lamb. I knew this going in, though, so it’s more of a critical observation than a gripe, I guess.
My wife went for a chickpea dish with oranges, raisins, grape tomatoes, and slivered almonds in an apricot and prune sauce. It was startlingly complex.I’m not crazy about plain chickpeas (I’d rather turn them into hummus), but I would actually order this. The chickpeas were cooked perfectly, they still had some texture, but gave way easily. Pieces of orange, simmered raisins, slivered almonds – soft, hard, yielding – so many textures. The dish achieves an astonishing balancing act with seeming ease – as you taste it you experience the sweet, the tart, the savory…but it also all works together. I would actually say it’s almost, almost, too many things going on. But it doesn’t cross the line. A deft hand, indeed.
Service was decent and super friendly. Joint was jumping. We’re ready to go back. Another fantastic little gem in the Capital District. Two thumbs up from us.