3203 SE Division
Here in hyper-creative Portland, there are a lot of restaurants that try too hard to be everything to everyone. Every now and then I'll hear about yet another Somalian-Icelandic creperie with a queer night, a pinball machine, a mariachi band, and an indoor dog park. Baraka, a new restaurant on Division Street, took a similar risk by blending the traditional Moroccan culinary experience with a typically Northwestern social attitude. This time, though, the risk paid off.
For example, while you're encouraged to eat with your hands Moroccan style, utensils are knowingly provided. One is gracefully reassured by the servers that resorting to silverware will not offend anyone or make one look like an idiot. The waitress also begins the meal by pouring cool water over your hands, but gently explains the ritual to prevent any confusion. The interior flaunts a mix of ornately decorated Moroccan paraphernalia and idiosyncratic American touches (the owners used to run a thrift shop, so there's lots of kitsch).
Another perk, the prices at Baraka are low: The all-encompassing "Taste of Baraka" ($20) includes a bowl of soup, a salad, an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert. The most expensive entrées cost only $10, and suffer no loss of quality for it. The harira, a traditional lentil soup, makes a great starter. It's warming and hearty, and boasts a well-rounded, herbal intensity. Three vegetable salads are also available; I tried Fatima's salad, with tender, lemony carrots, potatoes rolled in herbs, and spiced beets. The combination of tastes refreshed and cleansed the palate.
One appetizer, zaalouk, was a dish of eggplants slowly cooked with tomatoes, herbs, and spices. It was served cold, which was surprising, but worked well as a dip for pita bread; whole chunks of eggplant with caramelized skins added texture to what was basically a puree. I also highly recommend the pastilla, a savory phyllo pastry filled with marinated chicken and sweetened almonds, and garnished with cinnamon and powdered sugar. As with many of the dishes at Baraka, surprising combinations like cinnamon and chicken add depth to dishes that would be less impressive without them. These touches seemed to come from a genuine knowledge of the cuisine rather than an attempt at novelty. For the main course I ordered Couscous Baraka—buttery, fluffy semolina grains with vegetables and chicken or beef, all laced with the earthy flavor of fermented lemon. The unique citrus flavor combined with fresh, flavorful, perfectly tender vegetables made for a superb dish.
Another spectacular entrée was the tagine with poached egg and shrimp, bathed in a liberally spiced tomato-garlic-cilantro sauce. It came with a very generous serving of shrimp, and the sauce was pleasantly potent. I'd also recommend the lamb with apricots and prunes—a classic Moroccan combination of rich savory meat with sweet, spiced fruit. The restaurant serves just one dessert: a Moroccan flan layered with biscotti, shredded carrots mixed with orange juice, cinnamon, and sugar garnished with coconut. It's served chilled, and is a subtly sweet way to end the meal.
Baraka stands out from the crowd by serving great traditional Moroccan food, but, wisely, they also cater to the tastes of Portland diners. Fortunately, it's a balancing act that works.