734 Washington St., Norwood
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday
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Lahcen Abaichi is particular about cooking and serving the dishes of his native Morocco. At Cafe Paprika in Norwood, he patiently pickles preserved lemons for a year, and suggests pairing particular teas with your course the way some restaurateurs recommend wines.
Balance and restraint are important to Abaichi, for whom the sum of a dinner is as important as its parts. Desserts are not towering affairs drowning in cream, but a few sweet, flavorful bites. You’ll leave satisfied, but not weighed down.
“Food is not just about filling up,” Abaichi said. “It’s like a dance.”
We began ours with the plate of olives and cheeses ($7), with goat cheese, feta, gorgonzola, pita wedges, pickled vegetables, and olives. The goat cheese was wonderfully creamy, the feta firm and mild, and the gorgonzola pungent but good. I don’t like olives, but the rest of my party enjoyed the kalamata and Moroccan olives. The latter was unlike your typical olive, sweeter with an almost wine-like quality.
I asked Abaichi what the “wrinkly olives” were, and he looked like I’d wounded him. This is a man who feels for his food. He explained the Moroccan olives are not brined but sun-dried; they were soft, not tough like sun-dried tomatoes.
The Mediterranean bruschetta ($7) was topped with fresh tomatoes, goat cheese, and roasted red peppers, the last of which gave it a nice sweetness. The grilled bread, however, had once been crisp, but softened under the juices of the tomatoes.
The menu has several tagines — both the name of Morocco’s signature dish and the vessel with a conical lid it’s cooked in. The lemon chicken tagine ($12) had chicken cooked on the bone with olives, onions, preserved lemons, and herbs. It was good, and the lemons added a mild sweetness with a bit of pucker.
The marinated fish tagine ($13) is what to order when you want to eat light. Abaichi flavors a white fish (which varies depending on what’s available) in a marinade called charmoula and tops it with roasted peppers, olives, onions, and preserved lemons. The fish was delicate, flaky, and juicy.
The Moroccan merguez tagine ($13) includes merguez, the beef and lamb sausages made in-house, along with onions, peppers, and chickpeas. The sausages were tasty and seasoned well, but the chickpeas stole the show — you’ve never had chickpeas like this.
Abaichi said he simmers the chickpeas, then roasts them with seasonings, and simmers them again. They held their shape, but were impossibly creamy inside, yet not the slightest bit mushy.
My favorite was the Mrouzia almond chicken ($13). The topping of caramelized onions, plump and juicy raisins, and almond slivers was like dessert, yet an excellent match for the slow-braised chicken leg. The chicken was also more succulent than that in the lemon chicken tagine.
Abaichi has altered some of the dishes to suit the American palate or to balance out richness, and his menu includes some Mediterranean fare more familiar to Americans like paella and a caprese sandwich.
Tagine is often served as just meat and broth in Morocco, he said, and eaten using hands and bread; the couscous and rice would be a second course. To make it more “user-friendly” for Westerners, the dish is eaten with utensils and Abaichi includes the couscous or rice in the tagine.
We all chose couscous rather than rice to accompany our entrees, and the steamed couscous soaks up the sauces of your dish. My couscous took on the flavors of my merguez tagine, lightly buttery and garlicky.
Our desserts were accompanied by coffee brewed with Moroccan spices, a mint tea, and a lavender tea (all $3 to $4). The lavender tea was fragrant and not overwhelmingly flowery.
I chose the baklava cigar ($3), a rolled phyllo pastry filled with pistachios, walnuts, almonds, orange water, and honey, topped with sesame seeds. The cigar is called m’hencha in Morocco, but Abaichi calls it baklava so diners know it is a phyllo dessert. It has none of the butter of the Greek version, and the result is a lighter, more perfumey pastry. Greek baklava still wins out for me, but the m’hencha is good.
I thought I was crazy about the almond amaretto cake ($4), light layers soaked in a sweet syrup and frosted, until I tasted the lemon citron cake ($4), similar but even better. The cakes are not made on site.
Abaichi opened Cafe Paprika in 2008, after closing another restaurant in Brookline, Pizza Republic. He likes the more relaxed pace of Norwood, and said he accepts no reservations and nobody gets rushed out.
He cites his mother and his homeland as inspirations. Hospitality is important to him: “It’s an insult if your guest didn’t like your food; you take it personally.”
Abaichi has brought touches of Morocco and himself to the restaurant. The 26-seat space is lit with Moroccan-style lamps, and his photography decorates the walls.
Indeed, when asked what moved him to open Cafe Paprika, Abaichi said, “You want to leave a mark, expose who you are, showcase who you are.”
“You touch people when you cook for them,” he said.