In The Midnight Hour: Tagine Dining Gallery
Open Until: 2:00 am, Sun-Mon; 3:30 am, Tue-Sat
Drinking Until: close, 7 days
Food Until: close, 7 days
Channeling Marrakesh by way of the Lincoln Tunnel, Tagine Dining Gallery comes alive at night, much like the crowded purlieu it assertively tries to share with its customers. Murals depicting desert scenes jacket the rectangular space, while a vibrant canopy hangs near the front windows—and piled high on the benches that hug the wall are an absurd amount of throw pillows in varying styles and states (a few were coming apart at the seams). It's a boisterous restaurant, cast in a crimson glow, and run by former Cafe Mogador toque Hamid Idrissi. He's a man who preaches the sanctity of the fiery Maghreb condiment chermoula—that it offers belly dancing and an array of towering hookah pipes is an aside to chef Idrissi's ambitions in the kitchen.
Now in its eleventh year, the restaurant does a steady business playing host to adventurous theatergoers during prime time dinner hours, while later on the tables are filled with a mix of regulars and visiting revelers who are mostly here for two things: hookah and belly dancing. Wednesdays through Saturdays after 9pm, the lights turn low and the stereo turns up (to blaring levels) to cue intermittent performances from the costumed performers. On the night we visited, two birthday boys from a rowdy table of gents shook and shimmied with the belly dancer in that herky-jerk way that's so popular with drunk people these days. The tables too, are set up so that diners are encouraged to sit next to each other, facing the narrow path cutting through the middle of the restaurant that becomes the dancer's catwalk.
A plate of Idrissi's spicy carrots ($8.50), the bias-cut veggies briefly steamed and marinated in chermoula, is a bracing opener. Tender as can be, the mildly sweet tubers practically spark with the chermoula's brightness, which acts as a pickling agent and makes these things positively addictive. In direct contrast to the carrots is a variant of shakshouka ($10.50). Forgoing the eggs one usually finds in the simmered dish, Tagine's version is a mash of eggplant and bell peppers stewed with wine and garlic. The mellow flavors enjoy a few jolts of excitement thanks to a lacing of crushed green olives.
Many times, appetizers can overshadow the main course. Not so at Tagine, where the eponymous dish is presented at the table with a flamboyant removal of the clay pot's conical cover, prompting a rush of steam to escape. Forecasts of snow be damned, it's almost spring according to the calendar at least, and the traditional spring lamb tagine ($23.75) honors the season as much as any ramp or morel ever could. Bone-in hunks of fork-tender meat sit piled high in the center of the cookware, sitting in a coriander-spiked sauce and topped with soft prunes, toasted almonds, and sesame seeds. It's a beautiful dish, and the flavors come together thanks to its slow braise. Served with shallow bowls of harissa and chermoula, the different cuts of lamb yield alternating textures, but they all share the same rich flavor, though we could do without the banal wheat roll that comes on the side for sopping up that beautiful sauce.
A raucous experience that caters to its nighttime clientele, Tagine has made its mark on 9th Avenue's sprawling multicultural concourse—as much for the gyrating of its dancers as the boldness of its cooking. It's difficult to say which is more exciting.
Tagine Dining Gallery
About the author: Zachary Feldman is a former debutante and current freelance writer. He makes hand-crafted, small batch bitters under the moniker Bitters, Old Men.