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Morocco, as seen by candlelight

Restaurants | THE REVIEW

The intricate flavors of this North African cuisine get serious treatment at Tagine, a sexy little spot in Beverly Hills.

January 18, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

THE bestila arrives in a haze of sugar and spices, a round chicken and almond pie encased in fragile buttered layers of filo dough and covered in a drift of powdered sugar crisscrossed with trails of cinnamon. Take a bite: This is the genius of Moroccan cooking, savory chicken suffused with exotic spices against that shock of sweetness. In Morocco, it's traditional to snatch off pieces of the steaming hot pie with your fingers, but if we like, our waiter says, he'd be glad to cut the bestila for us.

With five of us seated at a round table cluttered with candles, bread and wine glasses, it seems easier to let him do it. The bestila disappears in seconds in quick, greedy bites. Delicious.

At the tiny Tagine in Beverly Hills, Morocco is a state of mind. Think Rick's place from "Casablanca" updated for the 21st century, with a trio of savvy young owners standing in for the Humphrey Bogart character. One of them, wearing a fedora, sits at a back table, doing the accounts on his laptop while cool jazz -- Chet Baker -- plays on the sound system. On second thought, maybe it's the wine list he's working on. Christopher Angulo used to be a sommelier at Water Grill; Ryan Gosling, a movie actor and another owner, is our waiter and the front of the house. The chef Abdessamad "Ben" Benameur is the third partner, and the only Moroccan. The three met working at Water Grill.

Angulo, Gosling and Benameur took over Mamounia, the previous Moroccan restaurant at this locale, a year and a half ago, revamped the menu to reflect Benameur's lighter, California-inspired cooking and remodeled the formerly kitschy space to give it a hipper, more modern sensibility.

The decor evokes Morocco without getting folkloric about it. The banquettes in the single dining room, which had been low, have been raised to normal height and covered in soft velvets. Age-mottled mirrors reflect the room in a dreamy haze. Giant brass-trimmed glass lanterns are mounted high on the ceiling and Edison lightbulbs with glowing filaments dangle in neat rows. Smaller filigreed lanterns cast lacy patterns on the walls, and on the tables, candles flicker in colored glass holders.

It's sexy and dark. At one table, a trio of young women in sparkly tops catch up with one another; nearby, an older couple on a date sips wine between bites of carrot salad perfumed with orange flower water and preserved lemon. Slowly, through the evening, the latter two edge closer together, which must mean things are going well. Whoever suggested Tagine as a meeting place gets a gold star. The food is good, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly, and at least on this weekday night, it's quiet enough to talk, even when a birthday party a dozen strong arrives to celebrate sometime after 9.

*

A step removed

THOUGH the lights of Robertson Boulevard are still just visible through the tall papyrus planted in front of the window, we feel very far away from the bustle farther north on Robertson with all the boutiques and celebrity sightings. Tagine registers as something secret with only a blue-painted door and an ornate lantern on a small table outside to mark the spot.

As soon as you sit down, bread arrives in a coiled basket with a small bowl of hummus and some wonderful oil-cured olives spiked with preserved lemon and \o7harissa\f7, the typical North African hot sauce. Until the recent departure of the bread baker, Tagine's bread was a Moroccan round loaf. Now it's triangles of pita, tucked under a cloth to keep them warm.

The easiest way to experience the intricate flavors of Moroccan cuisine here is with the set price menu. At $32 a person for a sumptuous seven-course meal, it's a terrific bargain. You'll also be able to sample most of the first courses and a selection of the mains if everyone at your table of four or five chooses something different. On weekdays, the chef also offers an a la carte menu, as well as daily specials, which give him a chance to experiment and vary the dishes.

At one point, an array of salads will arrive, to be eaten almost as spreads for the pita. There's a discrete mound of diced cucumbers seasoned with lemon and cumin, soft, smoky eggplant dusky with paprika, a spicy cooked spinach salad, and that enticing carrot salad.

One night, the special appetizer is \o7briwat, \f7small filo packets filled with shrimp, vermicelli and scallops. The flavors just dance across your tongue.

The namesake \o7tagine\f7, Morocco's eccentric terra-cotta casserole that's used to cook the dish of the same name, arrives and the waiter whips off the conical top to reveal three different grilled appetizers -- a \o7kefta \f7(like a grilled sausage) on top of a svelte cauliflower puree, a moist chicken \o7khotban\f7 (grilled, skewered chicken) on a white bean puree, and shrimp \o7khotban\f7 on smoky eggplant.

Take a bite of this and that. Served family style, it's the equivalent of Middle Eastern meze. I love the interplay of flavors, the way every bite is different.

*

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