It seems like we have a love/hate relationship with Moroccan restaurants in this city, and I'm not sure why.
No sooner did homey joints like Kabbab House and Kasbah Grill, or lavish eateries like Pasha Taverna and Casablanca Grill & Lounge, blow in with the bluster of a sirocco than they'd flutter into closure just a few months later. There were others — Chez Achraf, Couscous Moroccan Restaurant, Atlas Express — all decent, all gone with the wind. Oh sure, there's Spice Road Table and Restaurant Marrakesh but, c'mon, Epcot restaurants don't really count as local. No, only Moroccan Breeze inside Apna Bazaar on South OBT (it's run by Habiba Bimekliouen, who spent seven years at Restaurant Marrakesh) and Merguez on I-Drive have consistently kept those clay vessels fired with the stewy goods of the Barbary Coast. But now, with the opening of Tajine Xpress in East Orlando, we could be entering yet another honeymoon phase with Moroccan restaurants.
Tajine Xpress has visual allure, with its room of blue stucco and desert-brown walls. Mosaic lamps, lanterns and geometric dinnerware heighten the aesthetics, so it's a shame the restaurant opted for plastic utensils. Then again, Tajine Xpress technically falls under the "fast casual" category — patrons order at the counter and food is brought out by some very friendly staff.
But smiles and pleasant dispositions won't season the harira ($3.98), a tomato-based soup with beef, chickpeas, lentils and vermicelli, the way a dash (or five) of salt and a liberal squeeze of lemon could. It helped the loubia ($3.98), a white bean stew, as well, though neither were a match for the beautifully roasted eggplants and tomatoes in the garlicky, smoky zalouk ($3.98). This stellar starter was scooped up with soft rounds of house-baked Moroccan bread.
Admittedly, my mind was focused on the chicken tajine ($11.98) from the moment we entered. On my first visit to Tajine Xpress a few months back, I saw a family breaking fast with the dish during Ramadan, and that lemony stew dotted with green olives just looked so incredibly gratifying. I ended up taking home a tajine of sesame-flecked beef, prunes, onions and almonds ($11.98) that night as they'd run out of the chicken, but not this time. We indulged with great abandon and agreed the chicken would be added to our regular rotation of eats.
Same goes for the fatty — melt-in-your-mouth fatty — curry goat tajine ($12.98) sweetened with raisins. Both came with rice (couscous is served only on weekends), but the rice was happily sacrificed in favor of more worthy gut-busters like bastilla ($12.98), the sweet and savory phyllo dough pastry stuffed with seasoned chicken, dusted with powdered sugar and served with a side of honey. Moroccan fare is big on fusing the sweet with the meaty, and no dish does it better than flaky bastilla.
- Photo by Rob Bartlett
Then there's briwat ($8.98), a thick, flaky triangular pastry packed with seasoned beef à la keema samosa. The dip in this case was a fiery harissa that we had to get more of to dunk morsels of chicken, shrimp and kefta served in the kebab trio ($14.98). It's all heart-warming stuff, made warmer by sips of Moroccan mint tea ($2.99) poured from a handmade teapot.
For a fast-casual restaurant, the mood here is certainly relaxed and quite conducive to lingering. It may be called Tajine Xpress, but a meal here just isn't one to be rushed.