Bay Area Reviews


A Caveat


It's no exaggeration to say that I've been waiting years (well, a couple) to go to Tanjia, the Moroccan restaurant in Oakland. I love Moroccan food, I like the whole show atmosphere and I don't even mind the belly dancers too much. So one evening (November 2006), when the kids were away, we headed there with our friends Regina and Boris (with whom we hadn't gone out in ages, so were extremely happy to be able to see again).

Tanjia's interior resembles a large tent. There are tapestries on the wall and tented cloth hanging from the ceiling. There are air vents actually pushing cold air into the room, so that the air never gets stale. That means the temperature is on the cool side, and if you get cold easily you may want to bring a sweater. The seating is either on divans along the walls, or on firm pillows on the floor, around short, middle-eastern style tables. I like sitting on the floor and I have short legs so I found it quite comfortable - I'm not sure that everyone else did. But it's a Moroccan restaurant and this is part of the experience.

As in other traditional Moroccan restaurants, the menu here is preset ($22-24) and you only get to chose your entree. There are several chicken and lamb choices, but only a couple of seafood and vegetarian dishes.

Dinner starts with the washing of your hands. They bring warm kettles with water which they pour over your hands, and then give you a kitchen towel to dry them. This towel will serve as your napkin for the rest of the evening, not the most elegant of arrangements. Your first dish is a bowl of lentil soup. I found it OK, though I prefer it when the lentils have been mashed rather than left whole. I also felt it needed more lemon juice - it'd been nice if it had been served with lemon slices.

The second dish was a platter with eggplant puree, cauliflower, carrots and cucumber. The cauliflower was wonderfully spiced, and it was the favorite dish of everyone at the table. The cucumber seemed to be pickled and its subtle flavor contrasted will with the more piquant cauliflower. The carrots were on the plain side, and I personally enjoyed the eggplant, the only dish I actually ate myself, though it wasn't as good as babaganoosh. The vegetables were served with fresh baked french-style bread, which was good though the crust was a bit chewy. There was a good ratio of bread to vegetables, BUT if you are ordering a tagine you may want to reserve some to use it with its sauce later.

Finally, you get to the bastilla, which is my favorite part of any Moroccan meal. Bastilla, a pie made of spiced chicken (or pigeon, in Morocco), egg and nuts, is a specialty of Fez served mostly during Ramadan, but it's so good that all Moroccan restaurants keep it permanently on their menu. It can be made in several ways, I prefer it when the chicken and other ingredients are served between layers of phyllo dough, but it's more time consuming to make it that way and many restaurants, like Tanjia, prefer to skip the layering and make it as a regular pie. It was quite good (though not as good as the one I make), and my only complaint was that the dough was a bit too chewy. We all very much enjoyed it, however.

Then it's time for your individually selected entrees. I went for the lamb and onion tagine. I liked how tender the lamb was, and it was quite tasty as well - but the dish was so overwhelmingly salty that I was eager to exchange it with Mike. He had ordered the lamb and chicken dish, and his was much better. The chicken was very nicely spiced and it was very moist. The lamb was also quite succulent, though sweeter. Still, eating the meat with only a fork (no knife was provided) was difficult, in particular because the chicken was very small with tiny, tiny bones.

Regina made the mistake - for her - of ordering the chicken with lemon and olives. It was a mistake because the chicken had bones, and she only likes chicken if it doesn't look at all like chicken, which generally means off the bone. Still, she thought the chicken was good but also over-salted. That was also a problem for Boris, and yet he found his salmon to be, in his words, "delicious." It was nicely spiced, and he'd order it again.

Dessert consisted of a small piece of fried banana (not very Maghrebi, if you ask me), a small piece of melon and a slice of kiwi. After all that food, we certainly weren't hungry for more - but the banana was so good that I would have eaten it if offered.

The meal ended with a very disappointing cup of tea. Here, again, they made the spectacle of pouring it from far away kettles, but somehow it wasn't that impressive. The tea itself was extremely disappointing. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be mint tea; if so you couldn't taste the mint at all. Even worse, it wasn't sweetened at all, which made it pretty much undrinkable for me.

Tanjia offers belly dancing daily, and that night was no exception. The seating arrangement makes it difficult for those who are sitting on the pillows to enjoy the show while eating and socializing with their table mates, so I didn't actually see most of the show. I thought the belly dancer was of average skill and her costume could have used some more pizzazz. Mike, who was sitting on the banquettes and did watch the show pronounced it "OK," while hurrying to point out he is not a critic of belly dancing. His main comment about the dancer was that she was "tall."

The real low of the evening, however, was the service. The waiters could not have possibly been more aloof. There was no effort to engage at any level. Otherwise, I didn't think the service was particularly bad, but they didn't make a point to please. There was also a problem with the timing of dishes. We had to wait a long time before being served the soup and then again before the vegetables came. Pacing became better with the bastilla.

In all, we had a very nice time - though being there with friends was a big part of it.

4905 Telegraph Ave.