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Prix Fixe @ Tanjia, Oakland

Melanie Wong | Dec 8, 200309:44 PM

Last month, we celebrated my brother-in-law’s birthday at Tanjia in Oakland. For the price of just an entrée at other restaurants, we had a five-course meal, excellent service, a belly dance performance and a lesson as entertainment, relaxing ambience, and exotic atmosphere in spades. The dinner menu is set at two price levels, $21.95 or $23.95 per person, based on the choice of entrée from an extensive selection.

The restaurant’s nondescript facing on a busy section of Telegraph Avenue offers little hint of the sumptuous Arabian nights interior that lies within. A great deal of care has been taken to create an environment that immediately transports the patrons to Morocco. A traditional Berber tent drapes the main room with soft folds of fabric. Wrought iron lamps cast an intricate play of dim light and shadow across the opulent colors and textures. Padded benches rim the room to provide seating at round low tables, along with painted goatskin hassocks. Upholstered with luxurious brocades and velvets, the low benches are the width of day beds and comfortable for reclining supported by the many colorful accent pillows. The food is presented on beautifully decorated traditional ceramic ware. Shown below is the market in Morocco where the fabrics were purchased.

On a Tuesday night, there was only one other party in the room when we arrived at 7pm. Another couple was seated, but then left without eating. The tented dining room seats up to 50, and perhaps, it felt too quiet and isolated for them to stay. Yet, I’ll note that the couple that had a head start on us took advantage of the privacy. By the second bottle of wine, they were stretched out in the alcove-like nook alongside the entrance and feeding each other choice morsels out of hand. Later a party of six women arrived and had a raucous good time from the sound of it.

Our Moroccan waiter’s gracious service and pacing were seamless. Initially he recommended that we order the “Royal Crown” with lamb, chicken and seafood brochettes with variety to share. But this sounded like “surf and turf” to me, and we had many questions about the details of the other entrees. He soon figured out that we were interested in all aspects of the cuisine. Then he started to volunteer more information through the course of the meal about the methods of preparation and cultural context that enhanced our appreciation.

The dishes we tried were:

Harira soup – A mildly spicy red lentil soup that helped take the chill off. It was rather cool in this big room with so few patrons.

Assorted salads – Portions of roasted eggplant, cumin-scented carrots, marinated cucumbers, tomatoes and roasted bell pepper salad were arrayed on a large platter. Each was distinctive and seasoned differently than the other. Stephanie noticed that the accompanying Moroccan-style bread was crustier, more yeasty in flavor, and denser than others we’ve tried. It was higher quality perhaps, but not as good a partner for the salads as a spongier and lighter type of bread.

Bastilla and, for an extra charge, Seafood bastilla - We ordered one of each (two servings per whole pie). Chewing and contemplating the first bite of the crackly pastry, I asked, “Don’t these layers feel like they’re just a few microns thicker than commercial filo? They must make their own brik here.” Stephanie said, “Yes, this is really crunchy, it must be fresh, not frozen. There’s more substance and integrity. Even has more flavor.” Our waiter confirmed that the leaves of brik are hand-stretched and made fresh, and talked about brik, bastilla and samosas. The seafood version, filled with succulent and sweetly fresh scallops and prawns, was absolutely delicious. Yet, for as much as we liked that one, we gave the edge to the traditional chicken-almond-egg filling. There’s just something about the powder sugar sweetness against the savory and cinnamon flavors that’s so compelling. One quibble is that the slivered almonds while toasted didn’t have the extra bit of richness and texture of deep-frying. Both styles of bastilla were big winners.

Lamb with prunes – Large chunks of lamb stewed to tenderness with prunes and exotic spices. Without added honey, this was less sweet than other versions we’ve had. Relying just on the natural sweetness of the fruit, the flavor of the lamb and the prunes came through more directly.

Chicken with lemon and olives – A golden roasted poussin with juicy moist flesh infused with the salty, sour and bitter flavors of preserved lemons and dry-cured olives balanced by a touch of honeyed sweetness.

Lamb with onions tanjine – Served in the traditional clay braising vessel, the thick heady aromas when the lid was lifted made us swoon. A different cut of lamb was used for this that was more gelatinous and succulent, with all the cartilage broken down in the braising to thicken the sauce. The sugars in the onions were fully developed but not carmelized and the pieces still had a bit of crunch for extra texture. I found the sauce too salty, but Stephanie pointed out that it was needed to balance the sweetness of the onions.

Lamb brochette with couscous – The cubes of lamb were more done than medium, but still tender with a mild flavor. For this dish, the couscous was the star. Plump and fully saturated with the flavorful juices of the braised vegetables, the fluffy and separate kernels were toothsome with a smooth, rounded mouthfeel and very tasty. We were fighting over the last bits of it on the platter. Our waiter confirmed that the couscous is created from loose grain, hand-rolled each day in house.

Dessert – A simple arrangement of fried bananas drizzled with honey and some fresh watermelon slices. The bananas were ripe and mushy in a good way. We enjoyed this with mint tea.

At the end of service and after the last ceremonial hand-washing, we were scented with droplets of orange water. The aroma was more ethereal and brighter than other orange waters and our server explained that they make their own from fresh orange blossoms instead of using bottled preparations.

Shabnam (, the night’s belly dancer, put on a terrific set, nearly 20 minutes, certainly the best performance I’ve seen in a restaurant like this. She’s quite fluid and used her sequence of props – a fan, a sword, and lit candles – gracefully. She gave each of the customers a lesson too. Interestingly, she didn’t do a final round at the end to collect tips. We stopped her on the way out to show our appreciation.

My brother-in-law was very pleased with his birthday dinner. During the course of evening, as his friends called to send their regards, he enthused, “You’ve gotta try this place. It feels like we’re in the Casbah – we’re lying on couches and eating with our hands! The belly dancer’s talented and beautiful, the food is tasty, good music, you’ve missed a great evening. Come with us next time.” That’s as good a recommendation as any.

4905 Telegraph
Tuesday through Sunday
5:00pm through 10:30pm



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