WHEN YOU EAT out as often as I do, you don't encounter truly novel cuisine very often. There are only so many possible variations on a theme, so the pressure to devise astounding new fare invariably produces, at times, food that can be only described as downright weird.
What a treat, then, to dine at Nomads Café. Not only is the food delicious in every conventional sense, it's a magnum opus of unusual tastes, textures and smells, a dining experience unlike any other in Tucson. Heretofore, the absence of Moroccan cuisine on the local landscape has been a glaring deficit -- but one smartly remedied with the arrival of Nomads.
Not unlike Indian cuisine, Morocco embodies a rich and complex legacy as a result of its proximity to a geographical and historical crossroads. As an Islamic state, the North African country has strong ties to the Middle East. Additionally, Morocco has historically been considered the "fourth shore of Europe," under the influences of neighboring Spain and France (the country remained a French protectorate until 1956). Taken together, it's no wonder Morocco is the author of one of the world's richest cuisines.
Nomads owner Latif Camus-Lamnaouar, along with his American-born wife Roxanne, seem flawlessly to have transported the taste of Morocco to Tucson, with a flavorful menu that incorporates family recipes handed down through generations. The couple has managed to capture the spirit of Morocco in their tiny restaurant in both form and substance: the decor of each area reportedly pays homage to a separate Moroccan city, and the staff is as warm and gracious as the most skilled of ambassadors. (Friends who've traveled to Morocco have told me of the profound kindness and generosity of the people they met there, and if Nomads is any indication, this would seem an accurate assessment.)
Not only will the folks at Nomads cheerfully educate about Moroccan food, they'll also loan you a basket for your take-out, carry said order to your car, and in general treat you like family. Or better than family, as the case may be. No restaurant in town makes a better first impression than Nomads.
The first lesson in Moroccan cuisine is that couscous is the national foodstuff. Not only does it show up throughout the meal as a quaint side dish, it's the primary ingredient in appetizers, salads, main courses and even dessert. You'll want to keep this in mind when selecting the evening's meal. As pleasing as this fine semolina wheat product is, balance is everything. There are more novel pleasures that await.
Our first helping of couscous appeared in a timbale of shrimp and roasted red coulis ($7.95), and we were delighted with the result. The spongy grain absorbs the flavors it associates with, so that here we were able to clearly detect citrus, aromatic garlic and a zing of red chile harmonically converging in each bite. A toasty anise bread accompanied the dish, which aside from serving as a wonderful spoon, imparted an additional dimension of spice to the dish.
Another starter, basteeya ($7.95), billed on Nomads' menu as the "crowning dish of Moroccan cuisine," also elicited raves. Delicate, wispy layers of crisp phyllo dough are layered with a mix of ground chicken and almonds, as well as subtle infusions of cumin and coriander and dusted with a skiff of cinnamon and powdered sugar. Portions can be ordered in either small (feeding one to two people) or large (feeding two to four), and it's a guarantee that having once tasted this specialty, many will be tempted to forget the main course and make a meal here. The surprising blend of savory and sweet is sensational and, along with the light crunch of the golden phyllo, makes this dish a slice of heaven.
Two varieties of soup are offered at Nomads, both embodying a savory and satisfying character. Harira ($4.50) is traditionally eaten following a period of fasting during the month of Ramadan, and consists of a sumptuous tomato broth suffused with bits of tomato, celery, lentils, garbanzo beans, fresh coriander and a lacing of ginger and precious saffron. It's supremely delicious on all counts.
The chorba ($4.50) is a puréed blend of seasonal vegetables (we guessed carrots, potatoes and onion to be part of the mix, but were uncertain as to the rest of the brew), in a lavish broth distinguished by a hint of coriander and curry. It's a simple yet elegant soup that lives up to its reputation as Moroccan comfort food at its finest.
No meal would be complete without more couscous, so we ordered one of Nomads' entrees featuring this star ingredient. Couscous Mediterranean ($8.50) appears rather plain at first sight, but one bite reveals a piquant world of complexity. A finely diced olive tapenade (a paste made from brine-cured olives, olive oil, lemon juice and capers), chopped tomatoes and minced garlic are tossed with couscous to create a fantastically flavorful salad.
Also impressive was a tangine (stew) bil hoot ala Moroccan ($12.95), featuring a blend of sautéed carrots, broccoli, red and yellow bell peppers and olives in a symphony of cilantro, saffron, ginger, garlic, cumin, olives and lemon, served over a firm fillet of fresh white fish. The fish was moist and flaky, the vegetables tender-crisp and the assortment of flavors that hobnobbed on the palate were marvelous.
Our hostess informed us that Moroccan food is intended to be eaten with the fingers (three fingers to be exact), with bread, stew and vegetables pinched all together. We tried to follow her instructions when sampling the lemony chicken tangine ($12.95), but our attempts were inefficient and messy. Tender chicken breast, imbued with a lovely sunflower yellow hue thanks to a collusion of preserved lemons and saffron, arrived with a mound of fried, wedge-cut potatoes on its crown. We abandoned the three-finger approach for the more reliable knife and fork, soothing our limitations in dexterity with the balm of this simultaneously sweet and tangy offering, further brightened by lip-smacking citrus.
A close second on the list of Morocco's favorite foods has to be lamb, and Nomads offers an array of dishes featuring this tender meat. A tangine of lamb slow-simmered in an umber sauce of prunes, roasted almonds and sesame seeds ($16.95) was a marvel: meat falling from the bone, sweetly stewed fruit, toasty crunch and dense spices. The fragrance of ginger, cumin, cinnamon and coriander emerged with small bursts of flavor, making every bite exquisite.
The mechoui ($19.95), thin slices of roasted lamb seasoned in lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and cumin, may be touted as the supreme meal at Nomads, but it seemed rather predictable in comparison to the rest of the astonishing entrees we sampled.
We concluded our meal with a dessert known as "the crowning glory" ($5.95), alongside another treat of couscous sweetened with cinnamon, raisins, dates, apricots, almonds and powdered sugar ($4.50). The glory was by far the more impressive of the two: a squat tower with thin disks of phyllo, ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar, topped with crème anglaise and a handful of fresh blueberries and raspberries. Neither too sweet nor heavy, it was a grand way to end our exotic meal.
I'm a relative stranger in this brave new culinary world, but after my first trip I feel confident in saying Nomads has done right by the cuisine of its desert homeland. Don't bother booking a flight to Casablanca -- the wonders of Morocco await right here at home.
Nomads Café. 2920 N. Swan Road (in Plaza Palomino). 881-7383. Open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. No liquor. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $4.50-$19.95.