Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar â˜…â˜…
120 Grand St, Croton-on-Hudson
(914) 827-9393; taginecroton.com
Hours: Sun–Thurs, 5-9:30 pm; Fri and Sat, 5-10 pm
Appetizers: $7-$12; entrées: $14-$26; desserts: $6-$18 (dessert cheese plates: $12-$18)
You’ll find Morocco in the accents at Tagine Restaurant & Wine Bar in Croton-on-Hudson in the floor tiles at the entrance to the restaurant and some plates hung on the wall. But virtually everything else about the French-Moroccan bistro’s design and decor—the deep-red seating; the small, almost cramped, paper-lined tables; and the wine bottles turned water pitchers—is French.
The menu, too, is predominately French, though a handful of Moroccan dishes are offered. However, two of them—Moroccan lentil soup and warm pita with charred eggplant baba, roasted garlic, and chickpea spread—were, unfortunately, unavailable when I visited.
The French-heavy menu had me excited for baguettes, served from a wicker basket as we were seated. But on both visits, the baguettes disappointed, tasting chewy and several days old, like something you’d find in a supermarket.
Avoid the tried-and-true French bistro appetizers—the escargot was quite salty, all but ruining a garlic-parsley butter sauce that was bright and delicious even on the stale baguette. The raclette—baby boiled potatoes covered in melted cheese and served with cornichons, olives, and some nondescript ham—was largely forgettable. Instead, order the crispy polenta with mushroom ragout, made with New York-sourced organic polenta. It is a stunning example of beautifully seasoned, simple, hearty fare.
Try the merguez (lamb sausage) French pizza, made with crispy flat bread, but keep in mind that, delicious though it is, this pizza is not for those who shy away from spice—a heavy hand is used in “drizzling” red chermoula, a spicy Moroccan paste, onto the pizza.
As I guessed from overhearing a group who had been to Tagine before place their identical orders, the restaurant’s namesake dish, lamb tagine, is a rousing success. Use your fork to break apart the succulent meat and dip it into the dark, rich sauce at the bottom of the cast-iron dish—where, in addition to an abundance of meaty flavor, you’ll find tiny, perfectly cooked white beans and fleshy apricots. The accompanying couscous is standard, but the spicy (think warm flavors like cumin, cinnamon, and a subtle kick of heat) and slightly crunchy carrot salad is an excellent complement to the lamb. The harissa (Morocco’s answer to sriracha) is peppery and adds a fiery level of flavor, but use with caution because it’s stick-your-face-under-cold-water hot.
Mussels were inconsistent: One night, the 15 Minute Fish Stew was filled with fresh, beautifully cooked mussels, an impressive meal large enough to split that also included shrimp, scallops, and cod. But on another visit, the moules frites special was sub-par, a large portion of the fishy, dried-out mussels were just edible but not worth trying again.
Vegetarian options are often afterthoughts of menus and restaurants, but the vegetable tagine, which also happens to be vegan, was filling and flavorful, featuring chickpeas, artichoke hearts, squash, and eggplant. The vegetarian couscous featured an almost identical variety of vegetables in kebab form, but with the addition of about a pint of couscous dotted with sweet yellow raisins.
The entrées are almost all generously portioned, many large enough for two people to share, like the slow-roasted half duck. I happily accepted the option for crispy skin when ordering the duck, which was perfectly seasoned and cooked to a moist medium, but only a tiny portion of the skin actually reached the level of crispness that achieves a crunch when you bite into it. The side of creamy lentils was nirvana, tender and rich with a slight tang (possibly a sherry in there somewhere), while the ratatouille marocaine was really just a rustic ratatouille hit with a Moroccan spice blend, delicious but with questionable labeling.
Dessert is hit or miss. A dry almond cake was missing the cardamom Greek yogurt, which, once brought to the table, gave a little relief from the dryness but not enough cardamom flavor. Crème brûlée, crêpes, and hazelnut chocolate mousse (light on the hazelnut) were all standard issue and unfulfilling. It’s worth trying the homemade ice creams, like the harissa chocolate, which cools and heats up your mouth in one fell swoop, making that two-scoop portion disappear in a few frenzied bites. Baba au rhum, soaked in tangerine-rum syrup, was light and addictive, but, like many other desserts, nearly overtaken by the aggressive portion of whipped cream on top.
Regarding the service, the bartenders are friendly, the wait staff is knowledgeable about the ingredients and cooking styles on the menu, and successfully make beer and wine suggestions. Most important, they’re all happy to serve.
Show up early to Tagine and your party may be the only diners table-seated in the restaurant, but, a few hours later, the remaining tables fill in with casually dressed diners and a certain contained bustle that makes for a peaceful evening filled with some exotic but mainly comforting spices and flavors of a very French bistro with slight Moroccan tendencies.