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Dine: First bite

A dish to satisfy the senses

The tagine, the signature dish at Tajeen Mediterranean Cuisine, melds flavors in a manner that pleases the nose as well as the palate.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 30, 2003


photo
[Times photo: Fred Victorin]
Owner Abraham Hamdaoui, right, and his brother, Simon, use conical terra cotta pots to dish up tagines, such as this lamb tagine with green beans, lemon and black olives.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Don't you love it when a menu warns that there's a waiting time?

Sure, most dishes in the kitchen won't take more than 10 minutes in a saute pan or on the grill. It's the press of orders and being short one, two or more competent cooks that make you drum your fingers for an hour or so.

But when a menu says the chefs will need 25 minutes, like it does at Tajeen, my mouth waters.

It means they know that good food takes time, and that includes meaty guy fare, not just souffles. And tagines, from North Africa, definitely belong to the family of hearty, long-simmering fare, flavors all their own, like a pot roast or a chicken dinner that took the long route with a spice caravan.

The trick of a tagine at first seems to be the terra cotta vessel of the same name, a round pan with a conical top. The food is often brought to a boil and then covered to let out a little steam while concentrating the flavors.

And what flavors they are! Try meatballs with garlic, paprika and eggs punched up with cumin; you'll dip your way through a basket of bread before you finish the piping hot tagine.

That's an easy one. The best I had was the classic combination of chicken, olives and preserved lemons in a broth spiked with saffron and ginger. Under the cover of the tagine, those flavors come together marvelously. I'd prefer olives without pimientos, but the lemon became so soft and almost sweet, I hunted through the broth for more pieces of rind.

Then there's lamb, a big shank with good black olives and green beans, a combination you won't find anywhere else. Great flavor, but this is one that probably needs more time and less oil, so that fall-off-the-bone meat and sauce reach the ideal state of near-butter. But I won't give up on lamb, especially because Tajeen also does it with prunes, almonds and egg in another variation on a fragrant theme.

With any dish, add a pot of mint tea to tease your palate further.

To make a tagine in 25 minutes seems an impossibly tall short order, but the Moroccan entrepreneurs at Tajeen are unabashedly trying to squeeze their favorite national dish and other Mediterranean staples into quick-service for Americans in a hurry. (You can cut the time by ordering ahead.)

So they've given tagines, plus gyros, salad Nicoise, falafel, smoothies and eggplant sandwiches, a dine-in/takeout home in a crisply decorated deli on a busy street, hard by the familiar stuff of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Checkers and more.

Diverse ethnic charms dot this end of Fourth Street, from Bosnian markets to a Cuban restaurant doors away. Look out over your tagine, and across the street are the spare onion domes of a Ukrainian Catholic church. It's a streetscape spicier than you thought.

Tajeen has more than its namesake dish. The hummus is tart and lively, the red lentil soup is anything but dull, and little phyllo "taquitos" of chicken and almonds dusted with powdered sugar are an odd, sweet treat.

I have yet to try the couscous vegetable dinner (and I'd like some plain couscous on the side with the tagine). I'd like to work my way around the Mediterranean to the paella, too. And it will take a while for Tajeen to get service as smooth as its smile.

Like a good tagine, it's worth the wait.

Tajeen Mediterranean Cuisine

9001 Fourth St. N

St. Petersburg

(727) 576-7793 Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Details: No alcohol, no smoking.

Prices: $4.45 to $12.95

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