New England Regional
A few blocks from Central Square, a cozy jewel-box of a restaurant has quietly served up North African fare—Berber bread, merguez sausage, bastilla—and a flawless chocolate torte since 1997.
At night, Baraka Café’s 25 seats can fill up fast. Regulars savor the food and stylish, homegrown décor. Both reflect the roots of Alia Radjeb Meddeb, Baraka’s feisty executive chef and co-owner. Raised in Paris by Tunisian immigrant parents, Meddeb is also a pastry chef and restaurant veteran. “My first job in this country was as a dishwasher at the Algiers Café, in Harvard Square, in 1976,” she says. “I had to work my way up. It wasn’t easy!” (She is also the sister of celebrated chef Moncef Meddeb, founder of L’Espalier in Boston.)
But Baraka is undoubtedly her place: she picked out the purple disco-glittering fabric tablecloths, pillows that line bench seating, an iron scrollwork screen, and Moroccan-style tin and glass lampshades that add moody romance. “I am going to hire someone to think for me? Of course not,” she says. “Maybe if you have the dollars you can do that, but I like to make sure I design the things themselves the way I like it.”
She also painted the rear brick wall gold (a doorway leads to the tiny galley kitchen) and has hung mirrors, along with posters and paintings of North African landscapes. (The co-owner/chef, Krimo Dahim, is from Algeria).
No alcohol is served. But nearly as bracing is the cherbat ($2.50), a house-made lemonade infused with rose water and cinnamon that tingles the nerves.
Bold flavors and spices rule. Meddeb marinates green olives ($4) in harissa (hot chili sauce) and most often adds parsley, mint, and cilantro. The smoky Algerian eggplant dip ($5), loaded with roasted red peppers, garlic, and parsley, is topped with labne (a yogurt cheese). Flat Berber bread, cooked until it’s burnt and bitter in spots, helps blunt the heat and comes in various forms. It is laid thick with thyme, sesame seeds, lemon juice, salt, and sweet caramelized onions in the zaatar coca appetizer ($7) and also supports the open-faced sandwiches (from $7 to $9.50)—try the grilled housemade merguez, flavored with paprika, cumin, and ras el hanout spices (“top of the shop”—the best). That one comes with a salad dressed with a black caraway, thyme, and mustard vinaigrette, and some of the best fresh pommes frites we’ve had.
The classic bastilla torte must be ordered 36 hours in advance and features homemade phyllo layered with tender chunks of squab or chicken, mixed with cinnamon, saffron, and almonds (market price). But all the regular dishes are very good. The vegetarian couscous stew ($11) has carrots, squash, potatoes, lentils, and fava beans in a complex bouillon. The baby lamb chops, also marinated with ras el hanout, are paired with an almond and saffron tartlet, as well as mint sauce and a sautéed medley of spinach, shallots, and leeks ($21).
The intriguing entrées make it easy to forget about dessert. Don’t. Meddeb often makes her flourless chocolate torte ($7), akin to a soufflé, but she also likes to mix it up. “Right now I have the Key lime condensed milk and mascarpone cheesecake with the grape compote,” she said in a recent phone call. “But I will also make the baklava with hazelnuts and a honey rose-petal sauce. It all depends on what I feel like that day. It’s all up to me.”