Troy’s restaurant scene–already one of the most varied in the region–adds Moroccan cuisine this spring when Tara Kitchen opens its second location there.
Aneesa Waheed and her husband Muntasim Shoaib opened the Schenectady location five years ago on a side street not far from downtown, and has attracted an enthusiastic following that has grown ever since. “We’d been thinking about opening a second location for a couple of years, but really started looking last March. When we narrowed it down to Troy, we thought we’d have something there by the Victorian Stroll in December.” She laughs. “It always takes a little longer than you think.”
They’ll be opening at 172 River St., in the former Infinity Café. The building itself still sports the name Nelicks, harkening to its history as a furniture store, but the upper floors have been restyled into single-bedroom apartments known as the River Street Lofts. Although the redesign has remained as true as possible to the building’s (and the city’s) history, the roof sports a series of solar panels as part of the effort to power it with green energy.
That section of River Street is home to a number of longtime small businesses, among them Beirut Restaurant, the River Street Pub and Flowers by Pesha, with the added convenience of a nearby parking garage.
Waheed’s journey to Moroccan cookery was unexpected. She herself is Indian, and her mother operates the Indian restaurant Taj Mahal in Schenectady. But Shoaib is Moroccan, and the couple spent a year living there while sorting out immigration issues. She fell in love with the local cuisine and learned to cook it herself, so after leaving a career in publishing in Manhattan to move to this area, she began expanding her horizons by offering Moroccan food at the Schenectady Farmers Market, which she did for three years before opening her first restaurant.
She attended Russell Sage College in Troy, so her familiarity with the city includes time spent there as student and dormitory resident. “We looked at many different areas,” she says, “but Troy seemed to be the most comfortable fit for us, with a lot of support from the city, and even on the streets. As we were looking at different locations, people would recognize us and encourage us. And there are so many other great restaurants here that it’s exciting to be part of this community.”
Moroccan cuisine features the wide range of fruits and vegetables native to the North African country, with lamb, chicken, and seafood often featured in dishes seasoned with wonderfully aromatic spice blends and the tang of preserved lemons.
Central to the Tara Kitchen menu is the Moroccan tagine, a cooking vessel consisting of a cylindrical clay base that is covered with a clay cone fashioned with a handle on top. That top concentrates the heat and moisture in a productive way, spreading flavors while giving the ingredients a roasted texture.
Tagine refers both to the appliance and to the resulting dish, and the menu features such combinations as eggplant with prunes, honey, and chickpeas; brown lentils with green olives and preserved lemons; chickpeas with oranges and almonds in an apricot and prune sauce; chicken with preserved lemons and green olives or smothered in honey and raisins; fish with spicy date sauce, raisins, and almonds; scallops, fish, and shrimp with black olives in tomato chermoula; and, one of the most famous Moroccan dishes, lamb meatballs in tomato sauce with eggs.
You can even create your own tagine by selecting a protein (chicken, lamb, fish, shrimp, brown lentils, or chickpeas), a sauce (tomato or parsley chermoula, spicy date, apricot and prune), a vegetable (spinach, potatoes, eggplant, cherry tomatoes), and a condiment (kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, preserved lemons, spicy harissa, tomato jam, raisins, almonds, dates).
(Should you wish to try this at home, Waheed has created a line of Tara Kitchen products, including preserved lemons, parsley or tomato chermoula, spicy date marinade, Moroccan tomato jam, harissa, and ras-el-hanout, the last-named a spice blend that characterizes Moroccan cuisine. They’re available at the restaurant and other retail outlets, and online at tarakitchen.com and amazon.com.)
Says Waheed, “At least initially, we’ll duplicate the menu we have in Schenectady. That makes it easier to plan and easier to manage, but once we’re there, we’ll listen to the customers. We want to be respectful of the community and let the people tell us what they want.”
She and her husband are deep into the remodeling phase, aiming to give the new restaurant a unique but familiar appearance. “We want you to know that you’re in Tara Kitchen, but we want to give it a slightly different feeling so you know you’re in a different city. We just had our fifth anniversary at the Schenectady location, so this seems like the right time and the right city for us.”