#of visits: 3
official Tangerine web site
This might be the best-looking of all of Steven Starr's themed designs: a vivid, warm, exotic evocation of Morocco without much kitsch. Instead of carpets and hookahs, we get deep orange and blue light, entire walls of inset candles, and low, plush chairs. The ever-present soundtrack ranges from traditional to pop, mostly from North Africa, although not exclusively Morocco. The volume is a bit more forgiving than many new restaurants, and indeed the feeling of the dining room is quite tranquil and relaxed.
As with many of these high-concept places, my guard goes up when the design is too elaborate, but Tangerine is worth a trip just for the food. Indeed, on my first visit, we never even got into the dining room, and ended up eating in a comparatively bleak lounge, but still found the experience rewarding based solely on the food.
Since then, the bar and lounge have been improved immensely, turned into a welcoming area almost as attractive as the main dining room, although at the expense of the dramatic visual effect of approaching an orange altar as one entered from the street.
On our second and third visits we actually made it into the dining room, and I can say that the experience was much more pleasing, so, make a reservation, or swing by on an off-night. On Fridays and Saturdays the place is overrun with beautiful people and minions and hangers-on and wannabees and scenesters, and OK, there are a few regular folks, but it's mobbed, so plan accordingly.
Visit number three was as enjoyable as the others, except that six of us us were jammed around a round table better suited for four, and with elbow cramping, low chairs and the constant plate-juggling, it was hard to concentrate on the food. But we found a way to enjoy it despite the discomfort.
As with most of Steven Starr's places, Tangerine is almost doctrinaire in its promotion of food sharing. So try to get over your old concept of "I'll have the..." and come to a community decision about what you'd all like to eat. Of course it's possible to have your own appetizer and entree, but the starters are REALLY big, and no two plates are likely to come out at the same time, so you will all be happier if you just give-in and admit that everyone at the table will share things. Pretend you're in Chinatown.
I'm a big fan of this style of eating, and in fact it is a good way to temper the sometimes steep prices. Count on sharing a starter or two, and perhaps even leave off an entree depending on the size of your party. The portions are usually very large, you won't go home hungry. The problem is that reducing the number of dishes makes it even harder to decide between the many good things here, but we've had worse problems in our lives!
On that first visit, we started off with a "Moroccan Mojito" a casbah twist to the Caribbean rum drink. It was wonderfully minty, limey and refreshing, my new favorite drink. Imagine my dismay upon discovering that it's no longer on the menu. I know that Mojitos are overdone to the point of cliché nowadays, but this was a particularly good one, topped only by Alma de Cuba's "Classico." But we can console ourselves with some of the other offerings, the "Marrakesh Express" was a wonderful coffee cocktail, the "Tangerine" is fruity without being silly, and the Apples and Oranges, well, OK, that one's silly, with a Tang rim, but it was tasty...
The bread deserves special mention. Both types are outstanding, it's hard to say whether the slices studded with pistachios and dried fruit were better than the sourdough with rosemary, we'll have to do some more tastings to decide!
On our first visit, we started with an Octopus salad ($11.50), an almost overwhelmingly large portion of wonderfully tender grilled octopus, crunchy haricots verts, and chunks of new potatoes in a bracing lemony dressing. It was warm and cool, hearty and refreshing all at once. This was one of my favorite octopus dishes in a city full of them. We revisited this appetizer recently and the news is not all good. It's still a tasty combination as described above, but it has reduced in size to a point where it seems almost skimpy.
This, sadly was a recurring theme on my last two visits. I'm no fan of overly large portions, but at the prices that Tangerine is charging, many of the serving sizes seem rather miserly, especially given that we're supposed to be sharing.
On two visits we had chickpea crepes with chicken and chanterelle mushrooms ($10): soft, thin wrappers encasing an earthy, juicy filling. The first time, the crepes were formed as two baseball-sized bundles rather than the rolls or half-moons one might expect, and were more filling than they appeared. The third time they were about half that size, but still tasty. On the second visit we had a similar starter, a special, this time with smoky pulled pork enrobed in a more crispy shell, perfumed with fennel.
An arugula salad was an ostentatious pile of fresh, peppery greens and a few slices of Spanish manchego cheese, punctuated with sweet honey-glazed almonds. (I could eat these nuts all day) DDP and I powered-through the huge salad with no trouble, its sweet lemony vinaigrette meshing nicely with the strong greens.
The duck entree we had on our first visit has been changed, and it's too bad, because I would have happily ordered it again: a crisp half of a duck nestled into a deep bowl, almost a stew with rice, olives and raisins. Its replacement, a pan-roasted duck breast is a worthy successor, the tender duck coated in a crust of crushed pistachios and fanned atop a mound of creamed onions. A drizzle of fruity sauce leads across a rather broad expanse of plate to a small lobe of seared foie gras balancing atop a poached pear. The nuts accentuate the duck's gamey intensity, the onions and sauce providing that sweet kick duck likes so much. The foie gras, although only an accent, is guilt-inducingly rich and buttery, the dark, crispy edges the perfect contrast to the creamy interior. The pear was crucial to keep this all in balance, although especially in a Moroccan place it must have been hard to resist pairing foie gras with a fig. I liked this enough to order it twice, although at $27.50 it seemed almost skimpy: a single breast, a 3 inch disc of foie gras. Not that I left hungry, but the starters were larger, and a better value for sure. (and what's with the 50 cent thing? For god's sake, once we're in this ballpark just round it up or down...)
Similarly, we enjoyed the Red Snapper twice. It rests atop a pepper sauce and is positively transformed by a stew of julienned carrot, onion and fennel. Once there were spinach "dumplings," crispy purses (egg-roll wrappers, I think) filled with fresh sautéed spinach, and fried. The second time the spinach was encased in a more conventional ravioli. These made for a heartier dish, but still, the single filet seemed a bit lonely on the huge plate. At $24, they surely could have included the other half of the fish.
A much larger portion of roasted lamb ($27) again employed the popular fennel, slices of the crisped meat resting atop a gratin of potatoes and the anisey root. Yes, everything is atop, or astride, or immersed, there's very little separation of ingredients here, and that's fine with me, as flavors meld and combine to create new ones. We had a newer version of this which was still a healthy portion, although not as generous as before.
An herbed pork tenderloin ($18) was smoky in flavor, cooked to a tender medium rare, accompanied by beans and endive. I'm not sure if it tasted more like Marrakesh or Memphis, but no matter, we enjoyed it.
A traditional Chicken Tagine ($18) was elegantly simple: tender boneless chicken with olives and preserved lemon over fluffy couscous. While you can get this in any Moroccan restaurant, this version was far superior to the several I've had, with a delicacy and depth of flavor that put it among our favorite entrees.
A special of Poulard was a large portion of unbelievably juicy chicken, with a crispy, herby skin, over a rich broth, and some delicate cannelloni filled with marscapone. This was a big hit at the table, perhaps not as exotic as the rest, but one of our faves. At the risk of sounding petty, I have to mention that $34 is a bit dear for even such a fabulous chicken dish.
I rarely quibble about food prices, I'm happy to pay when the food and experience is worth it, and in most cases Tangerine is worth it. The only reason that I complain is that the prices and portions seem to be changing for the worse, and seem a bit out of line with other similar restaurants, even others owned by Steven Starr.
Tangerine has one of the largest and most diverse menus of the Steven Starr empire, and there is plenty more to explore. Check out a sample menu on their web site but be prepared for a few tweaks and substitutions. Everything we have had so far has been first-rate, showing both originality and a firm grasp of Moroccan spicing, although a few things we had displayed` an only fleeting hint of the region's flavors. I can't pretend to be an expert on this particular cuisine, but several visits over the years to this city's more traditional Moroccan spots (Marrakesh, Fez) have awakened my palate to the joys of harissa, cinnamon and clove, raisins, couscous and philo. It's absolutely worth trying some of the straight-ahead restaurants as well, there's something about digging into carrot salad, tagine and bisteka with your fingers, a cup of hot mint tea bringing things to a perfect close. But Tangerine has something truly special to offer: new and creative uses of these vibrant flavors, composed with an assured and trustworthy hand.
I'll be back.
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