We all have our litmus tests. One of mine is when I invite a recommendation from a server. "What's good?" I'll ask. If the reply is , "Everything," then I know I'm in trouble, since everything is often synonymous with nothing.
This little exchange -- chased by a sense of dread -- transpired on my first visit to the Barbary Fig. Funny thing is that for once, everything -- well, almost everything -- on the menu actually is good. For this anomaly we can thank owner Brahim Hadj-Moussa, the guy who does all the cooking. Literally. If he's not in his kitchen, his 13-year-old restaurant is closed. Like those silly Hollywood pronouncements ("Julia Roberts is Erin Brockovich!") Hadj-Moussa -- everyone calls him Hadj -- really is the Barbary Fig.
That's one reason I'm so fond of this unassuming gem, because its menu reflects the flavors of the three regions closest to Hadj-Moussa's heart: his native Algiers, his beloved Aix-en-Provence and his adopted home here in America. All three are evident in his alluring combinations of hot-cool, sweet-savory and spicy-mellow. Although his cooking feels and tastes highly personal -- the dining equivalent of peeking into someone's diary -- it's never eccentric, and it's unlike anything else in the Twin Cities. No wonder the Barbary Fig has such a rabidly loyal following. Count me among its groupies.
Because there's just one guy toiling behind the stove, the menu is short and sweet -- two or three appetizers, a few tagines (slow-simmered North African stews), several couscous dishes and three or four daily specials. Prices are shockingly low, yet the quality of the ingredients is first-rate. Who knows how Hadj-Moussa does it, although I imagine it's a combination of a strong work ethic, a low overhead and an intense passion for good food.
The specials, which change every few days, are little travelogues on a plate, redolent with the tastes of the Maghreb (Moorish North Africa) and the Iberian and French Mediterranean. You never know what you're going to find, but it'll probably be touched with cinnamon, thyme, cumin, marjoram, coriander, mint dried fruits or all of the above. Whatever the combination, you can count on it to be delicious.
Not many local chefs work with rabbit, but Hadj-Moussa does, with winning results; I loved a rabbit tagine he made with lentils, preserved lemon and dried apples. He's adept with fish, too. One evening I enjoyed a pretty plate of grilled salmon, served over orzo and a subtle eggplant-tomato coulis and topped with mascarpone and caramelized onions.
There's usually something with lamb or chicken, too, maybe grilled chicken with apricots over bulgar wheat, or lamb with roasted tomatoes and anchovies laid out on flat house-made noodles. And it definitely feels like you've hit the jackpot when he's serving his couscous royale, a splendidly seasoned mix of leg of lamb, spicy lamb sausage and chicken.
Couscous, the pellet-size pasta of North Africa, is one of those rare staples you can eat every day and never tire of, at least in Hadj-Moussa's hands. His vegetarian couscous is a mouth-watering delight, an earthy medley of zucchini, cabbage, carrots and onions blended but not dominated by cumin, coriander, caraway, fennel and turmeric and laid out over an aureole of perfectly cooked couscous.
The chicken variation is scented with saffron; the lamb version features that wonderfully garlicky lamb sausage, its bold flavors balanced by yams, sweet onions and currants and laced with traces of ginger and nutmeg. The layers of flavor dance in your mouth.
What else? There's the shekshouka, a satisfying breakfast-at-dinner scramble of lamb sausage, eggs, tomatoes and peppers. I'm also a fan of the tagine of chicken, made with zucchini and leeks, cooled by a refreshing ginger-tomato chutney. And I'm crazy about the sauteed vegetables, a sizzling blend of seasonal vegetables flecked with parsley, rosemary and lavender and topped with a pungent black olive pesto. Vegetarian cassoulet is as savory as its meat counterpart. I'm not wild about a surprisingly dull soup made with lamb, chicken stock and garbanzo beans, but I enjoy starting every meal with a small bowl of marinated olives and with brik, a crispy tuna-filled pastry tarted up with a fiery harissa.
If I had one wish for the Barbary Fig, it would be to improve the surroundings, which don't do justice to the superb fare. It's neither awful nor ideal, just forgettable. The restaurant is located in a radically altered house, where diners pass the first-floor kitchen, climb a Brady Bunch staircase and eat in a simple deep-blue dining room. The flower-filled patio is a much more appealing warm-weather option. Service is friendly but unpolished, and the pace is unpredictable at best.
The most satisfying dessert is the simplest, a small plate of luxuriously sweet Medjool dates. Bread pudding is perfumed with cloves and fennel. I love the delicate poached pears, topped with a crumble of slightly bitter Belgian chocolate. And there's a luscious crÃ¨me caramel, silky smooth and divinely rich. In other words, they're all good. Honest.