Dine About Oakland: TanjiaDecember 5, 2008
Tanjia is a little Moroccan spot on Telegraph in Temescal that I’ve been itching to try for a while now. I love Moroccan food, though admittedly my experience with food from this region is limited to a couple of good restaurants: Boston’s Baraka Cafe and NYC’s Cafe Mogador. San Francisco’s Aziza and El Mansour have been on my list to try for a while, too. The other night, though, we decided to finally try out our East Bay option when a friend wanted to go someplace nearby.
The restaurant is an intriguing space—you come through a wooden door into a giant tent, with low tables and cushions around the edges of the room. As with other African and Middle Eastern cuisines, Moroccan food is served family style and intended to be finger food, for the most part. Tanjia completes the atmosphere with lanterns (don’t look too closely—those aren’t candles!) and Moroccan music (although the music kept skipping and getting stuck, which made it a little weird….for a while D. thought maybe it was some weird techno mix with samples, but not so much). There’s also a large central space that is usually used for entertainment. (The restaurant advertises belly dancing nightly, but it turns out that “nightly” doesn’t include Sundays. That was okay with us, as we were there for the food—but check on this if you care.) On a Sunday night at peak dinner hour, only two other tables were filled.
The most important thing to know about Tanjia is that there are only two options: too much food and way too much food. You choose between two prix fixe menus, one for $22 and one for $24. Both are good deals for the amount of food you get and are pretty similar in content, so choose based on the entrée you want. The second most important thing to know is that your meal will take a loooong time, so plan to spend at least two hours, if not more. (We clocked in at 7 pm and out at 9:30 pm on a quiet evening when the restaurant was virtually empty.)
Just after we sat down, the waitress came by with a pitcher for the traditional handwashing, a good beginning. Both menu options then started with harira, a traditional Maghreb lentil soup. (The menu went so far as to call it “spicy,” but that was a reach.) Nonetheless, we enjoyed it. Next up: Moroccan bread (soft with a European-influenced crust) with a baba ghanoush-style eggplant spread, cucumbers, pickled carrots, and tomatoes. Also good, if basic. Then came the bastilla, a round pastry made of phyllo dough wrapped around shredded chicken sweetened with almonds and cinnamon. Bastilla is my favorite Moroccan dish, and this was one of the best I’ve had. (A friend who was with us shook his head: “Good thing you can’t get this thing by itself, or I’d be here everyday! Wait….do you think you can get this by itself??”)
I could have stopped eating after the bastilla and been perfectly content with my meal. (In fact, I’m planning to try making a veggie version myself.) However, those were only the teaser courses—the main dish was still to come. We tried the Royale Crown, a specialty plate that has a bit of everything and requires at least three people to eat it all (per the restaurant). Our platter had shrimp and scallops in sharmoula sauce, couscous with vegetables, lamb brochette, chicken with honey and prunes, lamb with honey, and chicken with lemons. Like I said, come with an appetite! The $22 menu has a number of couscous options, tagines, kabobs, and all sorts of other variations on the theme. The $24 menu includes some higher end entrées, including all of the seafood options and our sampler platter. The menu has no information about seafood and meat sources, which I would have liked (though in fairness, this is par for the course at most ethnic restaurants).
The entrées were a big disappointment after the tasty starter courses. The lamb brochette was so dry we gave up on eating it. The lamb with honey was more tender, but still quite chewy without much flavor—not what lamb should be. The two chicken dishes were solidly mediocre: seasonings were tasty, but meat was dry. The seafood was a stronger option, and I’d consider ordering that again, but we had so little of it on the sampler that it was hard to get a true sense of the dish. The one clear winner was the coucous with veggies. If we come back, that’s what I’ll get—it was perfectly seasoned and light.
Finally, the meal wrapped up with a simple dessert and tea: fried bananas with fruit and a cup of the traditional Moroccan mint tea. Dessert was fine as those things go, and the tea—which was nice and hot—was a lovely finish. As we sipped the last of it, the waitress came through with a second round of handwashing to end the meal, complete with a splash of rosewater. All in all, not bad. Come hungry and you get a pretty good deal for your money. (The bastilla alone is probably worth it!) They do need to work on both the entrée quality (for $30+ with tax and tip, the meal can’t coast on the starters) and the service, though problems with the latter may have been due in part to the fact that we were there on one of the quietest nights of the week, so there weren’t many folks working the kitchen. Still, we waited 20 minutes between several courses. Maybe on a night with bellydancing this wouldn’t have seemed so long, though. Am I glad I went? Sure; it was fun, and several of the dishes were delicious. Am I in a hurry to go again? Meh. If I’m in the neighborhood, maybe. This would be a fun pick for a group, though—no confusion on the check with set prices, and family-style meals mean it’s easy to share. There also aren’t too many Moroccan options this side of the pond, so if that’s what you’re itching for, Tanjia may be your best (only?) bet.