by Sam Gugino
Looking very unCasbah-like on the outside, the inside of Argana Tree Restaurant in downtown Jenkintown looks and feels more North African with wall decorations that evoke a Berber tent, as well as ceiling fans, colorful light fixtures, and soothing Moroccan music. Argana (named for a tree with seeds that produce a popular Moroccan oil) supplements its menu with more familiar Mediterranean dishes for the less adventurous. That is a shame because Morocco has one of the great cuisines in the world.
While you peruse the menu, enjoy the chewy wedges of excellent semolina bread with a dish of olive puree swimming in olive oil. Then order the assortment of Moroccan salads, a kind of tapas platter, can easily serve two people. This is common way to start meals in Morocco. There are three purees, one of roasted sweet red pepper, two of eggplant, along with herbed chunks of carrots, beets, salad greens and a halved hard-boiled egg, all dressed in a creamy vinaigrette. My only complaint is that the food was too cold to be fully appreciated.
There are three categories of Moroccan entrees you should try. One is couscous. In Morocco, couscous is not just a grain (it’s actually a pasta) but the national dish and why culinary legend Paula Wolfert titled her seminal book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Quill). Couscous here can be had in the Berber style, a more traditional presentation with vegetables, or El Fassi, with caramelized onions and raisins. Lamb and chicken can be added to both.
I wish I could say that that the vegetarian Berber I sampled was as extraordinary as Wolfert described in her book. Still, it was quite satisfying in a comfort sort of way.
More exotic is the pastilla (also spelled bisteeya and several other ways), a savory pie traditionally made with squab or chicken, though at Argana Tree, it is also made with seafood. The individual pies are filled with shredded meat, eggs curdled in a heady broth, toasted almonds and a variety of spices, primarily cinnamon. This is all encased in tissue thin phyllo pastry. It’s an unusual and delicious combination of textures and flavors, though the pastry was overdone.
Tagine is the third leg of the Moroccan entree stool and the lamb version at Argana Tree is terrific. Traditionally this stew or braise, made in a conical ceramic vessel of the same name, is made with chunks of lamb shoulder. However, here the lamb is a perfectly cooked shank, festooned with apricots and almonds, though you can have it with other accompaniments.
I’ve never found Moroccan desserts very compelling. Indeed, there aren’t any on the menu. Since I wasn’t interested in crème brûlée or tiramisu, I tried ekmek, a Turkish bread pudding that was quite pleasant but, quite frankly, not worth the calories.
Argana Tree Restaurant, 620 Greenwood Ave, Jenkintown, 215-887-7400, arganatreerestaurant.com.
Lunch, Tuesday-Sunday:11a.m.- 3p.m. Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday 5p.m.- 9p.m.. Friday & Saturday: 5p.m.-10p.m.
Reservations and credit cards accepted. Appetizers and salads, $7-$14. Entrees, $17-$29.
Beaujolais wines have the fruit and acidity that make them good matches for the perfumed and often sweetened Moroccan dishes. Unfortunately, searching for Beaujolais in Pennsylvania is more annoying than usual, which means REALLY annoying. (See my two columns on navigating the state store system.) Your best bet is to type “Beaujolais” in the “Keyword Search” box on the “Product Search” page. (Don’t select anything under “Wine Type.”) Then select “Luxury” under “Search for a Department.” (Don’t worry, luxury doesn’t mean the same thing in state store lingo that it does in the real world.) You’ll get about 30 wines.
Though white Beaujolais or Beaujolais Blanc exists, most Beaujolais is red. Maison Jean Loron Beau Beaujolais 2014 (Code: 49636, $12.99) has surprising richness and depth considering it isn’t a Cru Beaujolais, the 10 higher quality Beaujolais wines designated by specific villages (like Morgon). Terres Dorees Beaujolais l’Ancien Vieilles Vignes 2013 (Code: 47864, $19.99) was leaner with a nice peppery quality. I’d put the Vignobles Bulliat Cuvee du Colombier Morgon 2014 (Code: 33935, $13.99) somewhere in between the two.
Because finding white Beaujolais isn’t worth the effort, try the white wines from the Macon, just north of the Beaujolais region. Like Beaujolais, these wines tend to be unoaked with good fruit and crispness. Chateau de Mirande Macon Villages 2014 (Code: 99044, $19.99) is lean with good minerality. Heritiers Du Comte Lafond Macon Villages 2014 (Code: 49731, $22.99) is richer and juicier.
Chestnut Hill resident Sam Gugino is a former Philadelphia Daily News restaurant critic and Wine Spectator Magazine columnist.