Barbarians at the Plate

The Barbary Fig
720 Grand Avenue, St. Paul; (651) 290-2085
Hours: Closed Tuesday; lunch Monday, Wednesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:00 p.m.; dinner Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 5:30 p.m.-9:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m.

What pleases the Midwestern Palate? Cliché-spinners have caricatured the heartland tongue as a meat-and-potato-seeking missile. But those who live here know it's not that simple--witness the fierce metrowide allegiance to garlic-based artichoke ramekins, or the bloody duels that ensue when the various pad thai factions draw swords.

Barbary Fig owner Brahim Hadj-Moussa has had a ringside view of Midwestern food fights for the past 11 years he's cooked south-Mediterranean comfort foods at his Moroccan-Algerian-Provençal restaurant. And he has learned that you stereotype local diners at your own risk: On the one hand, "I still get people who look at the menu and don't know what's couscous, or what's olive oil. They get an olive and don't know what to do with it--you wouldn't believe the countless people I see trying to cut an olive with a fork and knife. It's pathetic." On the other hand, homegrown food snobs freak out when they learn that the filling for Barbary Fig's brik pastry is made using canned tuna. "They hear canned tuna, they make a face like 'Oh, what an insult.' I had no idea that canned tuna was such a no-no for the yuppies."

Even worse, says Hadj-Moussa (whom everyone knows as Hadj), are the wine showoffs: "You would not believe how many people come in here and say, 'You don't serve Bordeaux? Then there is nothing to drink.' You don't go to Italy and say, 'I want to drink German wine.' You drink the wine that's made in the back yard!" Those who turn up their nose at the thick, raisiny North African wines Hadj serves--at $3.95 a glass or $18.95 a bottle--miss out on a one-of-a-kind experience, since they won't be offered a glass of the house-made dessert wine, a white Moroccan vintage steeped for a month with oranges, juniper berries, and cinnamon. "If we have some ready and [customers] behave, we give them a little," says Hadj. But if you insult his decision to serve northwestern African wine with northwestern African food--nuts to you, you won't get a thimbleful.

The Barbary Fig is like that, personality-driven and idiosyncratic, rich with Hadj's quirks and strengths. For example, the upstairs dining room is yellow accented with purple, the ceiling painted with enormous swirling red onions, the walls decorated with Cézanne-like paintings, all of which work together to create sunshiny vibes reminiscent of Aix-en-Provence, the French city where Hadj lived when he first left Algeria. The restaurant has other Provençal touches--the lavender that tops a chocolate pastry, the silky crème caramel, the rabbit cassoulet that's been a special off and on for the past two years.

Meanwhile Hadj's Algerian roots are represented in things like the fresh lamb sausages, the tagines (simmered stews unique to northwestern Africa), and perhaps above all in the homey house soup ($1.50 a cup), a rich lamb and chicken broth fleshed out with herbs, a little tomato and cracked wheat, and lemon juice. If you're used to choosing between soups to start your meal, you might ask why the Barbary Fig serves one soup and only one? "I don't want to fall into that fast-paced American food culture," admits Hadj. "When I go back to Algiers, people eat the same thing every day. Nothing changes. The one soup is the only soup."

That one soup is the first stop on a dinner path paved with many little courses. You may start your meal with a cup of soup, then share a salad ($3.95 gets you lettuce and vinaigrette scattered with strips of grilled eggplant, walnuts, diced tomatoes, and drizzled with an artichoke-goat cheese purée), proceed to a cup of herb-sautéed olives ($3.95)--and suddenly you're having a multicourse meal in the Mediterranean tradition.

The brik ($3.95), another appetizer, is probably my favorite item on the regular menu. It's a glassily crisp envelope of pastry folded around tuna brightened with parsley and lemon and given a bit of an edge by harissa, the Tunisian hot sauce made from roasted chiles, garlic, cumin, caraway, coriander, and olive oil. (To those who know enough to ask, Hadj will offer brik "like they serve back home," filled with capers, herbs, and a gooey, soft-cooked egg.)

The nightly specials are also inspired. One recent visit brought a tender, flavorful cassoulet of white beans and rabbit ($10.95); another featured a special of lamb slices with a hint of garlic and lemon, tossed with chunks of soft, sweet, sun-dried organic apples, fresh dates, and a bit of yogurt ($10.95)--elegantly done, the sweet and savory nicely counterpoised. Desserts are few, but generally quite good: You can have a plate of fresh figs ($2.95), a finely textured crème caramel with a nicely potent caramel lid ($2.25) and, most outstanding, two tubes of phyllo rolled around a warm chocolate-hazelnut mixture, drizzled with warm honey, and topped with a sprig of lavender ($2.95).

If, however, you're the sort of person who reads a restaurant review top to bottom, as you seem determined to do, chances are you'd find Barbary Fig's standard entrées dull--healthy and functional but no more, the culinary equivalent of a good pair of walking shoes. Couscous with vegetables, raisins, and almonds ($7.95) is just that, a simple and wholesome dish with as much flair as a No. 2 pencil. Ditto for the sautéed vegetables with black-olive pesto over basmati rice ($6.95), a salty, good-enough item that appears to be quite popular--though I still can't see that anyone who regularly encounters tapenade, the Provençal olive-caper-anchovy paste, would be satisfied with it.

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