Club Med

The Barbary Fig

720 Grand Ave., St. Paul

290-2085

           A COWORKER ONCE told me about a friend of hers who had developed a hankering for Mediterranean food. And where did they go to satisfy the craving? I asked innocently. "Well, I'll tell you where we didn't go. We didn't go to the Barbary Fig," she said, crossing her eyes and drawling out the restaurant's name with the accent of an 18th-century pirate gone to New England prep school. "That's where they stick a piece of parsley on your plate and charge you $20 for it." Her appal was so vigorous that I'd long avoided the pleasant-looking restaurant, afraid that getting too close would turn me into a supporter of snobbery and trickery.

           Poor Barbary Fig: that's what you get from sharing the street with boutiques that carry designer baby furniture, organic clothing, yuppie beer-brewing supplies, overpriced antique wagon wheels, and gourmet coffee shops and bakeries. Six years went by before I crossed their threshold, checking both ways first to see if anyone I knew was watching from down the street. Let me be the first to say that my friend was wrong, so wrong: The most costly entrée here is $8.95, the portions quite ample, and the cuisine hearty and level-headed. The chef, I'm told, grew up in Algeria and spent time cooking in France, and those influences are reflected wonderfully in the menu.

           On our visit, the restaurant was filled with dating couples, and who could blame them for coming here? The space is intimate without being frilly, and you've got your choice of seating outside on the deck or upstairs on the balcony, both quite romantic. A small, well-chosen selection of beer ($2.50-$3.25) and wine ($14.95-$21.95 or $3.85 by the glass) is served, which may or may not help your date go smoothly. I had to be kicked under the table by my friend because I couldn't stop staring at everybody, all shiny-eyed, carefully dressed, and completely fixated on each other. Oh, that the bitter and lonely-hearted should be so achingly entertained. But be you bitter or ardent, you'll soon find your meal here to be much more absorbing than affairs of the heart.

           The special appetizer offered on our visit, homemade honey-wheat bread covered with black olives, roma tomatoes, and caramelized onions ($5.95), was marvelous, crisp yet lush with a brushing of fine olive oil. My friends crabbed a bit about the Barbary Fig soup ($1.35/$2.25), made with tomato, cracked wheat, lemon, and fresh herbs, saying that it tasted bland, which was fine with me as I ate the bulk of it, finding it to be quite tasty. Those in search of comfort food should like the brik ($3.75), a hot, crispy pastry loaded with tuna, scallions, and fresh parsley, served with harissa, a thick hot sauce; it was reminiscent of a good Vietnamese egg roll, squirting juice with every bite.

           With such a promising start, we were not to be disappointed with entrées. The Merguez couscous ($8.95) quite literally took my friend's breath away with its blend of spices, compelling the rest of us to sample the perfectly cooked couscous topped with heaps of garlic-lamb sausage, and prepared with ginger, nutmeg, crispy yams, caramelized onions, and currants. The plate of tajine of lentils ($6.75) was not so popular, the white beans, cracked wheat, and garbanzo beans fated to compare plainly despite their tahini, yogurt, and mint-and-dill sauce dressing. We're bound to go back someday, hopefully soon, to try the tajine of chicken ($7.95) and chicken couscous ($8.95), and to see what Mediterranean-inspired specials the chef has prepared for the day.

           Dessert is a heady affair, everything made from scratch as it should be. We bore witness to the ecstasy of a neighboring table as they spooned crème caramel ($2.95) into each other's mouths, but decided on homemade dessert wine ($3.25) and a chocolate hazelnut roll ($2.95) for ourselves. While the wine sounded so lovely, being fermented with cinnamon and orange slices, it was too sticky-sweet for our tastes, and we hardly made a dent in the water-glass sized serving we were poured. The butter cookies topped with pistachio nuts that accompanied the wine were also unfortunate, limp and lifeless. But the roll was deliriously incredible: rich, dark chocolate and ground hazelnuts baked in crispy layers of phyllo dough and covered with honey and lavender flowers. To all those bristling with pessimism about the worthiness of the Barbary Fig, one bite is probably all it will take to make you eat your words.

           TABLEHOPPING

           BITTER FRUIT, SWEET BERRIES: Feeling untouched by the sweet pull of summer hormones? No one to make out with under the bleachers? That's OK, you aren't alone. Redden your hands making strawberry jam, a cheaper and just as fulfilling (almost) substitute for pleasures that have a heart rate. It's strawberry season after all, and you should be able to find some real beauties between pick-your-own farms, roadside stands, and your local grocery. Freezer jam is a good place for novices to begin, since boiling-water processing is not required. After the jam sets for approximately 24 hours, it is then stored in the freezer until you're ready to eat it. Kerr Fruit Pectin shares this recipe for their Freezer Strawberry Jam:

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