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.
Dishes like those two put the Barbary Fig on many vegetarians' and vegans' lists of favorite restaurants, something I don't entirely understand: While a preparation like the tajine of lentils (a bowl of white beans and chickpeas tossed with parsley, dressed with a mint-dill-yogurt sauce and served on a bed of cracked wheat, $6.95) is good and healthful, I'd have been happier with a vegetarian dish using those wonderful chunks of stewed sun-dried apples. But what do I know? My instincts would also have suggested that most metro diners by now would have figured out couscous--after all, it's essentially just tiny pasta.
But progress, albeit slow, is coming. "When I made the dessert with the honey and lavender--people did not want to touch the lavender for years and years," Hadj recalls. "They said: 'We wash with that!' I said: 'You can eat it, it's okay--nothing's going to happen to you.' It took years and years, but it became a signature of the Barbary Fig, and if I stopped serving it, those same people who didn't want to eat it would be very upset."
STOP THE PRESSES! Vegetarians are always asking me where they should eat, and I always recommend the downtown Minneapolis Table of Contents--and then they look at me dubiously because it's not a vegetarian restaurant. As though I'm hiding the real vegetarian restaurants from them! I mean, hey, don't look over there--it's Chez Magnifique, the restaurant that spins flax into foie gras! I said don't look!
In fact, Table of Contents (1310 Hennepin Ave., Mpls., (612) 339-1133) features a vegetarian appetizer and a vegetarian entrée every single night, and the dishes get the same attention as the rest of chef Philip Dorwart's carefully executed menu. Recent selections have included pink-peppercorn blintzes filled with goat cheese and spinach, served with a grilled red-onion vinaigrette; a three-polenta napoleon with portobello mushrooms, Gorgonzola, and oven-dried tomatoes topped with parsley juice and curry oil; and a lime-leaf-scented couscous with grilled vegetables, pink-peppercorn mozzarella, and a tomato-saffron coulis. (Most vegetarian entrées tend to cost around $12.) You might have noticed the recurring pink-peppercorn theme--Dorwart says he likes those in vegetarian dishes because "They're really fruity with no real heat to them, they go well with wines and bring out that spicy fruit flavor. We try to hit all our marks with our vegetarian food--presentation, quality, compatibility with other foods and especially with wine. We're trying to disprove that vegetarian food has to be bland." Vegans, Dorwart says, are accommodated with a smorgasbord of various vegetable items on the menu: "We actually love to do it," he says. "It gives you something different to think about."
Dorwart and I chatted about various other things--like those omnipresent ToC billboards featuring his laughing face: "I've gotten more shit from that billboard than I could shake a stick at," groans Dorwart. "All of a sudden I'm driving into Uptown and there's an 8-by-12-foot picture of me staring down, and then all my friends are like: Jesus Christ, I can't get away from you, it's disgusting!" Then he offered a scoop. "What is it?" I screeched. Look for a new Table of Contents venture somewhere on the Minneapolis side of the Minneapolis-Edina border opening this October! And no, it won't be called Table 3. "We're going to name it something different, it will have more of a brasserie feel, and be a little more accessible. Think of it as melding Table 1 and 2 and throwing in some Lucia's." Watch this space for further info.
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