Years ago, a friend and I found ourselves in Istanbul. Though Turkey is universally renowned as one of the world's best places to eat, we had managed to find the one bad restaurant in town. The hot food was cold, the cold food was warm, everything was overcooked or underdone. It seemed as if nothing could escape the leaden cloak of failure that hung over the dining room. "How's the salt? Is the salt good?" I asked hopefully. "Not really," my friend replied. Ashamed to be wasting so much food, we feigned sudden kidney failure and slunk down the street to a köftecisi-essentially a Turkish hamburger joint-where we had one of the best meals of our lives.
Baraka, a new Moroccan restaurant in Southeast, isn't that bad, not by a long shot. But I couldn't help but revisit that sense of shame at leaving perfectly edible but totally unremarkable food uneaten. The better dishes are tasty enough but strangely one-dimensional, a shame considering the breadth and complexity of the Moroccan pantry. Others suffer from simple errors of mishandling, rendering some dishes ice-cold-literally. Whatever the reasons, the effect is the same: One hopes for so much more from this otherwise spunky, appealing hole in the wall.
The interior, dimly lit and done up in somewhat homespun carpets and banquettes, is oddly comfy, even if there's no hiding the fact that you're seated in a darkened box. Given the standardization of the Moroccan restaurant experience in this country, it's a welcome surprise to visit a place that isn't dressed to the nines in luxuriant tapestries and pillows.
Sadly, the letdown comes soon after. On one visit, our appetizers arrived almost as soon as we'd ordered them; as any wedding guest knows, pre-plated dishes tend to taste, well, as though they've been hanging around a refrigerator for a while. Fatima's salad ($5.50) is an underdressed, unseasoned assemblage of (very cold) vegetables and a dab of tuna fish; zaalouk ($5.50), eggplant in an overly simple tomato-sauce marinade, fares little better. Pastilla ($5.50), one of the crown jewels of Moroccan cooking, gets short shrift: What could be a mind-bending assemblage of flaky crust, sweet nuts and aggressively spiced poultry becomes instead an unremarkable slice of chicken pie.
Things improve with the entrees, though that's a relative term. My favorite was the least complicated: steamed vegetables over a bed of couscous ($8). There's nothing wrong with the tagine of chicken stewed with preserved lemons, or lamb cooked in a sweet matrix of honey, apricots and prunes (both $10). (I wish I could say the same for the one dessert, a layered pudding [$3.50] that one night was alternately soggy and frozen.) It's just the sense of missed opportunity that dogs the cooking here. At its best, Moroccan food is a melange of influences and truly exotic flavors: spicy, sweet and above all nuanced. At Baraka, we get just a hint of these qualities, and sometimes just a taste is worse than nothing at all.