We are headed for Norwood Center right at the moment when there is much ado online about the new Apple software update and its terrible map app. Well, we got the update and now we’re worried. Husby asks, “What are the chances that we’ll be misdirected?”
Answer: Very high.
Use any GPS that actually works to get to Cafe Paprika in Norwood Center. But get there. Moroccan-born owner Lahcen Abaichi is as gracious a host as we’ve met, in a dining room with paprika-colored walls adorned with photographs of his homeland. He opened several years ago and though there are many items on his menu that are Italian, his Moroccan cuisine is what you’re looking for. Over the years, he says, he has gradually introduced more and more specialties, sometimes adding one after a visit home. Kefta tagine ($11.95), a dish of tiny meatballs simmered in an aromatic roasted tomato sauce, with a soft-cooked egg on top, served with homemade bread, is a recent addition. The dish has everything: succulent meat, sweet sauce, an egg that spills into it, good bread to mop it up.
More classics include harrira soup ($4.50), the traditional bowl of lentils, chickpeas, fresh herbs, and warming spices, which varies with the season, says Abaichi, and becomes heartier in the colder weather. The house chicken soup ($4.50) is a nourishing stock with root vegetables and chicken.
Zaalouk ($7.50), a roasted eggplant, tomato, and bell pepper spread, comes with bread that has been heated directly on a flame; this ancient technique is such a simple way to add a nice touch to a dish.
You have to wait for a lot of the food here. Abaichi says it takes time to make everything. But zaalouk arrives quickly because it’s a room-temperature dish. One night it comes straight from the fridge and it’s almost tasteless.
Mediterrean grilled wings ($7.50), tossed with olive oil and lemon juice, are bone-chomping good. You can get them with barbecue sauce or Buffalo-style, says the owner, if you want to ruin them.
Preserved lemons turn a fish tagine of cod ($12.95) into a sublime dish. The fish varies each night, but is always made with a flaky white variety cooked in saffron, served with roasted peppers and a mixture of spices called chermoula. Ta-gines come with rice or couscous, but order couscous because it’s made the traditional way, the tiny grains turned into a mound of feathery semolina. In a chicken tagine ($12.25) with olives and onions, you come across pieces of preserved lemon tucked into the couscous and discover what it is that gives this dish its beautiful flavor.
Mrouzia almond chicken ($12.95), in which a braised whole leg is falling off the bone, comes with caramelized onions, raisins, and almonds, over cinnamon-scented couscous or rice. Vegetable couscous ($11.95), with carrots, onions, and other roots, is cooked well but lacks any flavor. We should have asked for the Moroccan chili paste harissa to mix into it.
Abaichi offers a number of Moroccan pastries including shabakia, the almond-sesame cookies cooked in hot oil, then dipped in an orange-water honey syrup, quite sweet. Moroccan tea is served here, with a flourish by the owner — he pours from high above the tiny glass and never seems to miss. The idea, he says, is to slightly cool the tea and get some foam. You can also get fresh mint in a glass of boiling water, the way it’s often served in Morocco.
One night, at a bustling table of two sisters and two brothers and their mother, and a couple of sweet kids, we hear the tune to “Happy Birthday” sung to a beautiful year-old girl in Arabic. Her parents have brought in cupcakes and she’s smiling ear to ear. They’re also content.
So are we.