Cafe Reviews

Couscous Ca-choo!

I was puttering about in my housecoat and slippers the other day, listening to Puccini's Turandot and fiddling with my collection of foreign bottle caps, when I spotted the purple top for a bottle of Young's Double Chocolate Stout. One of my favorite brews, its company logo features a ram. What can I say, I was overcome by a violent hankering for a good piece of lamb. I'm a great lover of lamb, and enjoy it in all its forms: from chops and lamb burgers to Irish stew and roast lamb with mint jelly, and, if I'm in an Indian mood, lamb vindaloo. You could even go so far as to say there isn't a sheep below a certain age that's safe in my presence.

Fortunately, a reader had called me recently with a recommendation for an Algerian eatery by the name of Delicious Couscous, raving about all of the delightful Middle Eastern edibles on the menu, but especially about the lamb shank. So when my yen for agneau reached a fever pitch, I abandoned my Puccini, my bottle caps and my housecoat and headed for the small commercial cul-de-sac that Delicious Couscous shares with a health store and a Middle Eastern grocery.

Little did I know that Delicious Couscous prides itself on preparing every platter fresh, so it took some time before my royal lamb couscous was ready to be inhaled. But that's all right, as I detest undercooked shank almost as much as I detest, say, Sex and the City and its horse-faced star Sarah Jessica Parker. (Please note I said almost. ) So I was quite content to drink a bit of mint tea, enjoy the Algerian tunes playing softly on the stereo and nosh on an appetizer or two. I started with a basket of pita bread and a plate of gooey matabbal, an eggplant dip with garlic and tahini nearly identical to baba ghanouj that I adore far more than hummus paste. Quite literally, it was finger-lickin' good, and afterward my fleshy digits were cleaner than if I'd bothered to wash them.

But man cannot live by matabbal alone, so I ordered a plate of fava beans, those legumes Hannibal Lecter made famous in The Silence of the Lambs by remarking of one hapless census taker, "I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." Minus the Chianti and the census taker's liver, Delicious Couscous' favas were, as the French would say, formidable! Mixed with chickpeas, parsley, tomatoes and olive oil, to which I added from the oil and vinegar provided as condiments, these hearty, brown beans caused me to forget momentarily the purpose of my visit.

Ah, but then came the main course, the royal lamb, which was everything I'd anticipated. Served beside a mound of homemade couscous that truly was délicieux -- light and fluffy, with a velvety smoothness that only such lovingly prepared grains of semolina can provide. Atop the couscous was a savory stew of carrots, zucchini and squash, and the lamb was so tender it nearly leaped from the bone when I stared at it harshly. The meat was cooked through and through without being overcooked, so that even the bone's marrow was fit to eat. I felt like some old hound, gnawing on that shank to get the last morsel of flesh. Lord knows, I probably frightened the other diners with my slobbering.

Since this initial, saliva-inducing experience, I've been back to wallow in many of the other superb dishes available. Though I've been slightly skittish about eating beef with all this mad cow talk in the news, I swallowed my fear with a plate of Delicious Couscous' aromatic kafta kebab: two servings of ground tenderloin seasoned with black pepper, spices and parsley. And I've nearly swooned over their Tajeen olive and Bejaia plates. The first is a tomatoey stew of pitted green olives, carrots, mushrooms and breast of chicken over a bed of rice sprinkled with pine nuts; the second, a combination of diced potatoes, onions, tomatoes and garlic simmered together with strips of chicken so the potatoes grow moist with the flavor of the other ingredients. As with most Algerian dishes, these taste best with a little saucer of harissa on the side, the red chile sauce that tickles as well as inflames the palate.

All of these are prepared by Salima Hassaine, who runs this homey little corner of Algiers with her elegant, beautiful daughter Kahina and Salima's husband, Rashid, an architect who worked with the world-renowned Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer on such projects as the University of Constantine and Algiers' Olympic Complex. Several years ago, the family, which includes the Hassaines' two sons, fled the violent political turmoil that's long plagued their native land, spending some time in Syria before finally finding asylum in the United States, and, more specifically, in Phoenix.

"I've always loved cooking," the smiling, dark-haired Madame Hassaine told me recently. "Even when I was at University. And I enjoy experimenting with dishes, too." So perhaps the family was fated to have a restaurant someday, but it's unlikely they ever suspected it would be in Arizona, a place suggested to them by some government apparatchik.

Fair-skinned Kahina, 21, speaks the best English of the three, with French being the preferred language of Salima and Rashid -- a result of Algeria's French colonial past. In fact, one of the reasons I love to visit the Hassaines so often, aside from their affecting bonhomie and outstanding victuals, is that Monsieur Rashid, as I'm apt to call him, gives my très mauvais français the workout it so desperately needs!

"C'est un café, Steve," admonishes Monsieur Rashid, a thin, sprightly fellow sporting a gray mustache and glasses. "N'est pas une café!"

Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Rashid, pour la pratique. I'm afraid I mostly learned my French pronunciation from imitating Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, so I tend to be a little off. But this does lead into more kudos for Delicious Couscous: its superb café et patisserie. Madame Hassaine could easily make her living as a pastry chef. Her baklava is baked on the premises, and so far as I've tasted, the best in the Valley. In addition to baklava, she usually offers the choice of another Middle Eastern sweet for dessert. Some days it might be pistachio-filled bird's nests made of phyllo, other days it might be chocolate baklava, a specialty of the house. So far, I think the one I enjoy most is what Madame refers to as knafeh, a half-inch-thick square of almond paste with cheese and diced walnuts. Each of these is best appreciated, I think, with a cup of Algerian coffee, which is not as strong as its Turkish cousin but still flavored with cardamom.

The restaurant's decor is sparse, with plain green chairs around tables with green and brown covering. Here and there are hung prints of alluring women in traditional veils and dresses, and there's a framed list of the 99 names of Allah, written in Arabic calligraphy and translated into English, such as An-nur, The Light, and Al-baqi, The Everlasting. Otherwise, the plain white walls are mostly taken up with quaint but forgettable kitsch, but this is pretty standard for a family-run, ethnic eatery. The warmth of the place comes through in the presence of the Hassaine family members themselves, I believe.

The only caveat I'd have for those venturing there for the first time is patience. It's not a place to go if you're eating on the run, as Delicious Couscous is sometimes short-staffed and those exceptional dishes of Madame Hassaine's require time to bring to fruition. I'd also attribute the tardiness in service to growing pains: The Hassaines are novice restaurateurs; and the establishment has only been open since June.

However, if you ready yourself for a leisurely meal, you will not be disappointed, as the quality of the preparation and the ridiculously low bill far outweigh any delays one experiences. Monsieur Rashid will even throw in a French lesson à la maison, whether you ask for one or not. Why, with him as my doting tutor, I may one day surpass whatever I've already gleaned from watching that clumsily cunning Clouseau inadvertently save the world in The Pink Panther Strikes Again.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons