The spice is right at Harrisburg’s new Mediterranean eatery
At first blush, Asalah Moroccan Cuisine seems to be just another corner restaurant with an inconspicuous exterior. But once you know what’s waiting for you behind the big windows and simple decor, you’ll be hurrying back quicker than you can say “kasbah.”
Owner Brahim Gamal, a native of Morocco, opened the restaurant in late March and has been serving up the tastes of his homeland to an increasing number of hungry customers ever since.
If you’re not familiar with Moroccan food, there’s a good chance you’ll at lest recognize its chief ingredients. With its coastal Mediterranean climate, Morocco produces a hearty variety of fruits and vegetables – including, but not limited to, melons, tomatoes, olives, dates and almonds – as well as grains like durum wheat used in the country’s staple dish, couscous.
The Northern African coastal waters also provide an abundance of seafood as well, while its grazing lands yield plenty of meat – beef, lamb and chicken. The result is a cuisine marked with wide offerings of flavor combinations – and that’s before you even get to the spices, ranging from cinnamon and cumin to ginger and saffron.
Our waiter the night my companion and I dined at Asalah was Brahim’s brother, Abdessamad Gamal. He was extremely friendly and happy to offer up tasty tidbits of information about the dishes as we dined. We were unsure about how spicy some dishes would be, but Abdessamad helped us navigate to those that would suit our palates.
The presentation of the food provides a nice counterpoint to the unadorned interior of the restaurant; each plate balances the line between elegant and richly garnished. You can see the care that goes into the preparation and service, but don’t let that keep you from digging in and ruining the look.
My companion and I split a large pot of hot Moroccan tea – a sweet green tea with mint. I’ve had Moroccan tea in Morocco before, so I was delighted to see it in Harrisburg properly presented on a silver tray, complete with an ornate silver teapot, decorative glasses and sugar lumps. A peek inside the teapot revealed plenty of mint leaves, and the flavor of the tea had a fresh-cut edge to it.
For our first course, we chose the harira soup, which did not combine so well with the tea (hot tea and hot, spicy soup do not mix), but it was definitely filling and full of flavor. The strongly spiced tomato and lentil soup had an appetizing smell of cinnamon and, when taken with water instead of tea, was pleasantly spicy in a way that didn’t build up to an overpowering level.
Immediately following the soup, we dug into a carrot salad, which at first looked like a huge pile of finely chopped carrots. Looks can be deceiving, however; the soft, chopped carrots are marinated in a garlic cilantro and lemon vinaigrette and are quite tasty. For $1 extra, we also ordered a side of a hot salsa (harissa) which was considerably spicier than the soup – the kind of spice that builds. So if you end up with a mild Moroccan dish that doesn’t excite you enough, I’d recommend adding some of the harissa.
For my entrée, I ordered the t’faya tagine – simmered lamb with ginger, caramelized onions, cinnamon and raisins. Tagine (or tajine) is a standard Moroccan dish typically featuring lamb or poultry cooked and served in an earthenware plate with a cone-shaped lid (from which it gets its name). The bone-in lamb at Asalah was superbly tender, dark and delicious. I couldn’t stop eating all the perfectly caramelized onions it was swimming in. I was delighted with the presence and play of all the flavors in the dish, alternating and mixing lamb, onion and raisins with each bite.
The t’faya tagine was so rich and savory that it was a welcome change to mix it up with my companion’s chicken bastilla (or pastilla), which Abdessamad fervently recommended to us. The bastilla consists of filo dough stuffed with shredded chicken, eggs and almonds, baked and topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. It’s basically a big, thick mincemeat pie meets baklava meets funnel cake, yet none of those descriptors really do it any justice. My dining partner disagreed, but I thought it tasted a bit more like a dessert than an entrée. It has a unique flavor profile from the mix of the chicken and the sweet elements. It’s definitely something someone who likes sweet things should order, but is worth trying if you can convince your dining partner to split it with you.
Additional dinner items include a variety of tagines, including meatball, fish, vegetarian and more. A handful of other lamb, beef and chicken dishes include ingredients like apricots, prunes, preserved lemons, almonds and other Moroccan tastes to the mix. (Sorry, vegetarians, there’s really not more than two or three entrees for you.)
If you’re craving one of Morocco’s most well known foods, Friday is couscous day. You can order one of four types of entrees: couscous t’faya with chicken in a saffron ginger sauce and some sweet garnishes; couscous with either chicken or lamb; or vegetarian couscous.
Entrees run between $13-$15. For a quicker, cheaper meal, the restaurant also offers sandwiches for $7-$10, including a shawarma wrap, a Mediterranean burger, kebob sandwiches and more.
There’s a good chance that not everyone reading this article has enjoyed a true Moroccan meal. But take it from me – no prior experience is needed in order to treat yourself to an authentic slice of the Gamal’s homeland. You now know where you’re eating on Friday night. Have a bite for me.
• 1014 North Third Street, Harrisburg; 409-8965
• Monday-Friday, 4-9 p.m. and
Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
• Entreé prices: $3-$15
• Wheelchair accessible, credit cards accepted, completely nonsmoking, reservations not accepted, alcohol not served, takeout available