Don't bring a Tunisian to a Moroccan restaurant: there's bound to be a fracas over the couscous.
That's not meant to be any sort of statement about Tunisian-Moroccan relations. It's merely a statement that our particular Tunisian (who, truth be told, is a little more New York than Tunis) has particular ideas about couscous.
Zagora, the recently opened restaurant on Guerrero and 22nd, conveniently around the corner from the Lone Palm and snuggled between Cafe Que Tal and Kiji, offers enough couscous options to sate any appetite, Tunisian or not. And while a visit to Zagora isn't exactly a visit to, well, Zagora, it's a comfortable, friendly neighborhood restaurant -- one that doesn't quite deliver on all it promises.
The staff was willing to accommodate our ragtag group, which started out as three people, then grew to five, and finally settled at six. While waiting for the stragglers, Kim and Wendy ordered some Moroccan tea -- a somewhat steep $3 for simple mint tea, though it was refilled through the meal. The authenticity granted by pouring the unsweetened tea from a silver teapot was quickly nullified by the container of sugar and Sweet-N-Low packets placed on the table.
We also ordered the duet of eggplant appetizer ($7), which arrived quickly; the duet turned out to be an eggplant puree accompanied by strips of grilled eggplant, topped with greens. The puree -- rather overpowered by tomato paste -- went well with the excellent homemade pita bread, warm from the oven.
As our group drifted in we ordered more appetizers: the princess salad ($7.75), jumbo scallops ($10), and Merguez sausage ($8.50). The salad was crowned king by Kim, who reveled in the salty-sweet combination of smooth pistachio-crusted goat cheese, mellow sauteed Maui onions, dates, and frisee. For the price, the three scallops could have been a little more jumbo; competently grilled but uninspiring, they sat on a bed of roasted red peppers.
The Merguez sausage, juicy and smoky, was plated with a hummus strangely redolent of tuna salad, according to Wendy. The association, we soon learned, came from the celery root it was pureed with.
Entrees on the menu appear not to stray too far from the meat-and-couscous axis. We tested the restaurant's facility with lamb, ordering the lamb tajine and the Zagora couscous (both $19), which featured lamb too. The results were lackluster, both dishes not amounting to much more than meat and couscous. The lamb tajine arrived in its namesake vessel, dramatically uncovered at the table to reveal a lamb shank, its juices mingling with dried apricots and prunes and soaking in to the couscous below. The Zagora couscous -- braised lamb with Merguez sausage on top of couscous -- failed to produce much of an impression at all.
The Saweera prawns tajine ($16) was uncovered to little fanfare, also: the prawns were overcooked and while the menu teased us with the prawns' accompaniment of ginger, orange blossom, and organic Roma tomato jam, the dish didn't live up to its fragrant promise.
There, exactly, is the problem: we experienced little of the magical mix of North African flavors that the menu taunted us with. Service was friendly and helpful; wine was tasty and plentiful (a French rosé followed by a Chilean tempranillo); food was unmemorable. And the couscous? Definitively pronounced not up to snuff by our couscous expert.
1007 Guerrero St. (near 22nd Street)
Dinner Tuesday-Saturday; brunch Sunday.