Meats are typically fired on a grill in customary Moroccan cuisine. But, despite an otherwise steadfast commitment to authentic, Moroccan food, Zerza owner Radouane ElJaouhari knows that, sometimes, a restaurant benefits from a little unconventional thinking. So when Zerza moved to a new location, ElJaouhari told his contractors to leave the existing clay oven in the kitchen. As a result, the distinctively Moroccan meats—ginger-marinated chicken-breast kebabs, spiced ground beef, lamb and chicken tagines—emerge juicier and with a more full-bodied flavor than their more “authentic” counterparts.
Though the cooking style may cross cultural boundaries, the ambiance at Zerza’s is positively Moroccan. Punctured-brass lanterns spray the walls with golden rays, casting gentle light on clay pots and guests nestled in chairs adorned with burgundy upholstery. On Saturday nights, belly dancers sashay to North African pop tunes or the rhythmic clatter of pots and pans.
One look at the circuitous journey Tagine's Head Chef Hamid Idrissi took to get to where he is today, and it's no surprise that he's most attracted to the "rustic, labor-intensive" quality of Moroccan food. Starting his adult life as a barister in Northern Morocco, the reluctant lawyer started spending more and more of his time coordinating elaborate dinner parties for friends. Perhaps he wanted to reclaim part of a childhood spent helping his mother prepare feasts, often for upwards of a hundred family members and friends. In those early days?which acted as an de facto apprenticeship?he learned from her how to balance Berber and Arabic flavors, discovering the subtle interactions of orange blossom water, cardamom, and mint. He also familiarized himself with the tools of the trade, working with massive earthenware pots and hand-welded copper pans.
Even after 30 years in New York City, and years spent working his way up from line cook, he still finds that the flavors of his native Morocco suit him best. His passion for his culinary tradition is such that he often waxes poetical about the ingredients during his in-restaurant cooking classes. He expounds on the versatility of olive oil, which can enrich his signature Moroccan pheasant pie or add flavor to his homemade semolina bread. He elaborates on the virtues of roasted garlic, preserved lemon, and the rewards of doing the hard work of cooking yourself. That mindset is why he makes everything in house, from encasing his own lamb merguez sausages to enfolding sweets within fresh pastry dough. He also takes a hands-on role with drink preparation, and recommends the orange blossom sangria, also designed in his kitchen, to wash down the carefully crafted meals
Just as Chef Hamid's menu showcases the traditions of his homeland, the decor of his restaurant highlights the many artforms that surrounded him as he grew up. He bedecks the walls in handwoven berber textiles, and lights the soft space with the colored glass Moroccan lamps. Belly dancers sinuously wend their way through the dining room. Even the hookah pipes are works of art, the flavorful smoke emerging from colored glass bulbs just as genies emerge from the tailpipes of Toyota Celicas every 150,000 miles to grant wishes.
For chef and owner Philipos Mengistu, cooking is a family business. He spent much of his childhood in the kitchen of his parents’ restaurant in Addis Ababa, learning recipes that had been passed down for generations. Today, Mengistu pays tribute to that tradition with a menu that includes authentic Ethiopian honey wine, coffee from the plant’s country of origin, and his mother’s own fiery berbere sauce. Plenty of tongue-toasting options abound, from the stewed lamb of the yebeg wot to the zilzil tibs—beef marinated in awaze and red wine. Whether guests prefer their dishes spicy or subtle, they can scoop, share, or not share with savory injera, a sourdough flatbread used as a utensil.
Influenced by both the Mediterranean and North Africa, Moroccan cuisine is marked by a heavy use of lamb, fragrant spices, and the French tenacity for complex cooking methods. Moroccan-born Yassir Raouli shares his take on his home country’s cooking through both a mobile bistro truck and a sedentary restaurant. He infuses his own creative aesthetic into dishes, adding duck bacon to the lamb burger and filling popovers with melty gruyere cheese. This playfulness is seen across the brunch, lunch, and dinner menus, along with an unwavering dedication to wholesome, organic ingredients obtained from small-scale farmers. The restaurant suggests all dishes be shared.