A bigger, better Tajine on Polk Street

When Tajine moved from its hole-in-the-wall location on Jones to a small, cheerfully painted storefront on Polk Street near Pine Street, I worried. Chef/owner Mohammed Ghaleb, who charmed everyone from his tiny open kitchen, might disappear behind the stoves. Would he be able to cook as successfully for more people?

After three visits, I am happy to report that the food is even better at the bigger place — lively, full-flavored and even fresher than back at Jones Street. Plus, the whole operation runs much more efficiently. Dishes come out of the kitchen in a timely and orderly manner. With more seating there’s quicker turnover of tables — and food. The new Tajine even takes reservations.

Begin a Tajine meal with soft, juicy salads like saucy taktouka ($6.50), peppers and tomatoes melted together in olive oil, so lusciouswith warm, house-baked flat breads. I cannot eat here without having Ghaleb’s fresh beet salad ($6.50), cut into tender little cubes seasoned with cayenne, parsley and cinnamon, topped with sliced egg. Share all four menu salads on the Mosaic Plate ($9.50) which includes zaalouk, roasted eggplant and tomatoes mashed together; and a sprightly, salsa-like shalada of fresh tomatoes.

Then on to Ghaleb’s signature bastilla, flaky filo dough enclosing a moist, savory filling of chicken, almond and egg. His shatteringly crisp version, crisscrossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, is one of my favorites anywhere.

Namesake tajines — foods slowly cooked in terra cotta casseroles — star as main courses. In kufta tajine ($12.95), spicy lamb meatballs and two poached eggs peek out of a bright Moroccan stew of tomatoes and peppers. Everything combines in the most lascivious way.

Lamb tajine ($13.95), has become a demure bowl of boneless braised lamb with prunes and toasted almonds in a haunting gravy whispering of tumeric, cinnamon and ginger. At the old place, this tajine was made with lamb riblets, breast and shank. I miss the succulence of bony meat.

Chicken tajine with olives and preserved lemon ($12.95) boasts another seductive sauce: tart, salty, aromatic with spices and tumeric, and full of vegetables. The chicken falls off the bone but still has plenty of flavor and the whole thing is topped with excellent french fries.

Coarse-grained couscous comes with grilled or braised meats, my favorite being merguez ($12.95), skinny, spicy, lamb sausages. Dab on house made harissa, a medium-hot chile paste distinctively seasoned with caraway. The paste melts into the juices.

Somehow, the vegetarian couscous ($10.25), appeals to me the most. The hearty vegetables — cabbage, turnip, carrot, winter squash, zucchini and chickpeas — are perfectly tender but still offer a little resistance to the teeth, keepingtheir individuality.

If you bring your own wine or beer — Ghaleb won’t sell alcohol — the no-nonsense waitstaff will bring glasses and corkscrew.

As good as things are at the new Tajine, a little of the magic is lost if you don’t meet Ghaleb, a man of infectious warmth, who used to welcome both walk-ins and friends as if they had been invited to his home for dinner. Now, during Ramadan, which lasts until Oct. 12, you might find him during the day cooking, but not tasting, his food.

Ghaleb personifies the tradition of Muslim hospitality. He charges so little for his homey, heartfelt cooking, that patrons still feel as if they’re getting a gift.

Tajine

Location: 1338 Polk St., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 440-1718; www.tajinerestaurant.com

Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. every day, except 3 to 10 p.m. Friday

Price range: Salads and appetizers $4.95 to $10.95; main courses, $10.25 to $15.95; grilled sandwiches, $8.25 to $9.25

Recommended dishes: All salads, bastilla, kufta tajine, lamb tajine with prunes and almonds, chicken with olives and preserved lemon, vegetable couscous, merguez

Credit cards: Cash only

Reservations: Accepted

No alcohol served.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

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