Barbary Fig: Cuisine of the Maghreb on Grand Avenue in St. Paul

Barbary Fig: Cuisine of the Maghreb on Grand Avenue in St. Paul

I have never quite understood why the cuisine of the Maghreb — that is, north Africa west of Egypt — isn’t more popular in the United States. It’s really a Mediterranean cuisine, closely related in style to Italian and Spanish and Turkish and Middle Eastern, with many of the same ingredients: tomatoes and peppers and olives and capers, fresh seafood, dates and flaky pastries.

In France, it’s one of the most popular ethnic cuisines — Moroccan and Algerian restaurants and cafes advertising couscous and tajines are a common sight. In fact, thanks to Google, I just learned that couscous was recently found to be the third-most-popular dish in France. Couscous is steamed semolina (cracked wheat) topped with a meat or vegetable stew; tajines are stews, traditionally cooked in a special clay pot with a conical lid; typical tajines combine lamb or chicken with olives or a variety of fruits and spices.

But in the Twin Cities, it’s almost unknown. Saffron, in the Minneapolis warehouse district, does offer four tajines on its menu: one with lamb shank with quince cooked in fall spices with white beans, sesame seeds and preserved lemon ($25), and another, which I enjoyed recently, made with duck meatballs in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce ($19/$27).

In all of Minnesota, the only restaurant dedicated to this great cuisine is the Barbary Fig on Grand Avenue  in St. Paul. I’ve been a fan of the Barbary Fig for decades, but somehow, it had fallen off my radar — it had been years since my last visit. But I happened to stop by for lunch, and was delighted to find that it was as good as ever.

The same chef-owner, Brahim Hadj-Moussa, affectionately known as Hadj, was still in the kitchen, and little else seemed to have changed. Even the prices seemed to have changed very little — Barbary Fig is one of the few restaurants I can think of in the Twin Cities that offer wine and beer, an intimate bistro ambience, and most dinner entrees under $12.

Barbary Fig couccous with chickenHighlights of the lunchtime visit included a plate of couscous topped with a stew of boneless chicken, carrots and leeks with a tomato and toasted sesame seed chutney; and my companion’s open-faced lamb and bleu cheese sandwich with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, served over a toasted brioche. Both dishes had a delicious lightness and freshness about them.

 

On a return visit, the dinner menu offered nightly specials ($14.25) that ranged from lamb shank and rabbit to seafood. We started with the brik, an appetizer of tuna wrapped in filo pastry, a popular street food in Algeria; and a salad of mixed greens, tossed with goat cheese, artichoke puree, olives and chopped walnuts. These were pleasant, though I don’t recall finding any of the grilled eggplant that was listed as one of the salad ingredients. Later, Hadj mentioned that with advance notice, he can make a more traditional version of the brik, filled with chopped egg and other ingredients.

For our entrees, we chose a nightly special of shrimp in sauce of tomatoes, garlic and capers, served over rice ($14.25), and a vegetarian entree of fava beans, rice, carrots and cabbage topped with an apricot chutney. Both were good enough to be enjoyable, but the next time I visit, I’ll probably try something different, like the couscous with merguez sausage, yams, caramelized onions and currants ($11.95), or another of the ever-changing nightly specials.

I’d also like to return for the Sunday brunch, which ranges from crepes with caramelized pears and chocolate ($7) to eggs scrambled with merguez sausage, caramelized onions and fresh tomato ($8).

Author: Jeremy Iggers

Jeremy Iggers is a journalist, university instructor and social entrepreneur with interests that include food, philosophy and global-local connections. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and publisher of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He lives in south Minneapolis with his wife Carol and two cats.

About Jeremy Iggers

Jeremy Iggers is a journalist, university instructor and social entrepreneur with interests that include food, philosophy and global-local connections. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and publisher of the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He lives in south Minneapolis with his wife Carol and two cats.

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