BY ERIC CZEPYHA
It’s Saturday night, and you need to eat. While you would like to avoid having to take out a loan in order to pay for dinner, at the same time you do not want your dining experience to open with your waiter writing his name in crayon on your paper tablecloth. Furthermore, while you could never imagine venturing to that strange and distant land across the river (I think they call it “Boston”), you are tired of frequenting the Harvard Square standbys. If ever you find yourself in such a predicament, I suggest you direct your stomach and your date towards one of Inman Square’s newer additions – Argana.
Argana, a tiny new restaurant serving “a unique blend of Moroccan Mediterranean cuisine,” is hard to miss. Its bright orange façade calls out (loudly) to the Cambridge Street passersby, which I count as an attribute from a marketing standpoint given that, depending upon how much one has had to drink, oftentimes on a Saturday night the typical HLS student responds best/only to loud colors and sounds.
If getting liquored up is in fact your primary goal for the evening, Argana will not disappoint. The bar is creatively adorned with a variety of mosaics and clay pots that make for excellent conversation pieces (read: terrible pick-up lines). More importantly, Argana boasts a short and yet unique cocktail list (all $8) for those willing to venture beyond the beer/gin-and-tonic paradigm. I had the pleasure of sampling the coffee-bean garnished “Marakkech Express,” a tasty combination of Stoli Vanil, Khalua, Tia Maria and fresh espresso. Other noteworthy concoctions include the “Harissa-Tini” (cucumber vodka w/ a hint of chili-infused Noilly Prat) and the “Arabian Nights” (Myers Dark Rum shaken with mango syrup and Chambord with a float of Limonaya Vodka).
Despite Argana’s somewhat overbearing façade, the restaurant’s cuisine is rather reserved (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Take, for instance, the lamb boureck appetizer ($7), a beautiful presentation of filo pastry triangles stacked ever-so-carefully upon a bed of ground lamb, pears and almonds. Although no bold flavors seemed to stand out, the ingredients of the dish were each fresh and delicious. For those who like to share, my server recommended the mazza ($10), a plentiful assortment of Mediterranean goodies, including hummus, olives, Zaalouk and grilled Argan oil pita points.
In the entrée category, Argana seems (rightfully) proud of its “Tangines.” “Tangines” refers to a Moroccan style of cooking, in which meats, fruit and vegetables are slowly cooked over charcoals and presented in a giant conical earthenware vessel. Sounds scary, tastes very good. Among the Tangines prepared are vegetable, lamb, quail, Cornish hen and salmon (ranging from $15 to $18). I opted for the Salmon Tangine ($17), a flavorful cut of Charmoula marinated salmon bathed in a stew of carrots, green peppers, olives and preserved lemon.
Beyond its world of Tangines, Argana also offers a respectable assortment of couscous entrees and an interesting-sounding duck a la Marocaine ($19) – duck fillet served on Casablanca-style couscous with fresh mangos in a port wine prune sauce. Anyone looking to dine in a Moroccan/Mediterranean restaurant while avoiding Moroccan/Mediterranean food (Why would anyone do this?) will be happy to know that Argana provides a number of “comfort” foods (e.g., the angel hair seafood pasta and mushroom raviolis). Somewhere between comfort and adventure you’ll find the berber pizza ($8), a grilled pita topped with mushrooms, olives, tomatoes and goat cheese.
Argana’s dessert menu consists of a few jewels amidst a handful of commoners. While it’s hard to go wrong (in any restaurant) with the crème brulee ($7), mint sorbet ($6) or chocolate fondue for two ($14), I suggest taking a chance on one of the more creative offerings. The M’Halbi ($7) proved a surprisingly tasty blend of mint and orange blossom water. On a return visit, I will make it a point to try the crepes berberes ($7), a serving of berber pancakes topped with orange honey and sultanas sauce. Not to be forgotten are Argana’s after-dinner coffee drinks (all $7.95), which include the “Cafeè Diablo” (cognac, Grand Marnier and Sambuca) and the “Mocha Berry (chambord, cocoa, coffee and cream).
So it’s Saturday night and you need to eat. Skip past the Mexican place, the pizza place, the other pizza place with good beer and the brewhouse, and instead take a walk (or a $5 cab ride if you’re lazy) to Argana, where you’ll find a hip little restaurant that is sure to please both stomach and pocketbook.