801/2 Pearl Street, Cambridge
The problem with Baraka Café is that by the time I get to the entrees I’m never hungry. There’s such an overabundance of kemiette and meze (little, tapas-like dishes), constituting nearly three-quarters of the menu, that, when the main course arrives, all I can do is attempt a few cursory bites just for show. And in a tiny, 20-seat restaurant like this one, where the kitchen overflows into the dining room and there’s only one cook and one waiter, this can be an ordeal.
Last visit, I was corralled by the chef on the way to the bathroom. “You like the food, no? Then why don’t you finish?” he asked with a wounded look in his eye. I pleaded satiation, and made a quick escape.
In the Arab world, the mazza table can constitute an entire dinner. There’s no talk of food to “whet the appetite,” and a meal is simply a progression of tastes, instead of a progression of courses. But when you transplant an Arab chef to the Western world, at least at Baraka, the diner gets caught by the pull of two cultures, and orders two complete repasts: an array of small dishes that in themselves would constitute a full dinner, as well as the more traditional entrees. In short, overkill.
And at Baraka, the tastes come fast and furious, replete with the inventive spicing that results from the position of Northern Africa at the crossroads of the ancient caravan route from the East. Close to Sicily, Italy and Spain, the land has been filled by successive waves of immigrants over thousands of years: Berbers, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Spaniards and the French who colonized the region. Its fertile land has adapted to this influx, offering both ancient grains and New World vegetables.
The pastry chef and owner, Alia Rejeb, is Tunisian, but the chef de cuisine is Algerian. What does this mean for the diner? The Algerian chef, Krimo Dahim, explained that Algerian food is known for being sweet, not as spicy as Tunisian. When he cooks, he says, he likes to balance all the flavors. And I could taste it in the food. There was a complexity of seasonings, myriad spices melding to make one unique taste, but always with an undertone of sweetness.
Most of the meze are excellent. Crunchy house crackers, dusted with spices, are the perfect foil for the various dips and spreads. If you’re lucky, soft pita-like bread, fresh from the oven and dusted with caraway seeds, will also be handed over. Bedenjal Mechoui ($3.95), an eggplant spread with roasted peppers, garlic, parsley, vinegar and lots of olive oil is always perfect, the smokiness of the eggplant mingling with the fruity oil. Olives are a staple of the region, and here they’re served both in a diced salad with herbs (Teklia, $3.50) and whole, marinated in the Berber style (Zaitoun, $3.50). Unfortunately, the Chermlat El Sanaria ($3.50), carrots served cold in a sauce of raisins, onion jam, and oregano, tastes like nothing more than carrots in ketchup. In this case, it seems, the sweetness element has conquered all others.
From the hot meze, the Karentika ($3.50), a chickpea custard in a pie crust, is uniformly bland. It comes smothered, however, under a wonderfully piquant harissa, a spicy condiment made by pounding chili peppers in a mortar with salt, olive oil, and spices. Harissa is one of the foundations of all North African cooking, and it’s excellent at Baraka Café. You’d be well-advised to order harissa alone as a meze ($3.50), and forgo the Karentika. The Zaatar Coca ($4.50)—a hand-stretched bread, grilled over a fire, then sprinkled with herbs and piled with fantastically sweet caramelized onions—is also a must-order.
A savvy diner would stop there, and proceed directly to dessert. After the meze, the entrees seem oversized and repetitive. The Melkha ($12.95), an eggplant stuffed with olives, spinach, and feta cheese, is aggressively salty. No one at our table would take more than a bite. Grilled meat is just that—grilled, plain, boring. The couscous ($8.95) is just acceptable, surprising since this is the staple of the Maghreb. Ideally, each grain of couscous should be distinct and fluffy, having been steamed and re-steamed over water (but never submerged) in a couscousière, a special implement designed for this purpose. I spied a couscousière in the kitchen, but our couscous was nearly soggy and overladen with vegetables. The specials change daily, and are hit-and-miss, but every lamb dish I’ve had has been wonderful, imbued with a slightly gamy flavor that is so often lacking in farm-raised meat.
For dessert, you must order the Flourless Chocolate Torte ($5.50), spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper, saffron, nutmeg and star anise, and accompanied by rich Valrhona chocolate sauce and dried fruit compote. The Crème Brulée ($5.50) is less enticing, too eggy, and not as creamy as it should be, with an incorrect proportion of custard to bruleed sugar. A dense thimbleful of Turkish Coffee ($2.00), afloat with whole pods of green cardamom, is a fine end to the meal.
Baraka Café is an alluring little restaurant. Its bricked room with blue trim and curtains seems as far away from Central Square as Cambridge is from North Africa. The undulating fans, swaying glass lamps and lemonade scented with orange blossom and rose petals ($1.75) all conspire to create a transporting experience. Even though I can never finish a meal, the trip to Central Square seems worth it.