Seven years ago, Tajine Alami (then, Tajine Fez) quietly opened its doors in Manitou Springs, offering authentic Moroccan cuisine as well as a traditional Moroccan dining experience. Then last year, as mysteriously and quietly as it had appeared, it disappeared.
About four months ago, much to my delight, Tajine Alami reopened. So when I received a note inviting me to a special dinner event at the newly opened restaurant, I jumped at the opportunity.
More than just a meal, dinner at Tajine Alami is a feast and a lavish dining experience engaging all five senses -- beginning as soon as you enter the restaurant.
Crossing the threshold from outdoors to indoors, diners are quickly greeted by the wonderful aromas of garlic, ginger, cumin, cinnamon and saffron. A smiling host welcomes you as if you'd come to his house for dinner, directing you to the large coat and shoe closet. (It is customary to remove both before a meal.)
The main dining area is cave-like, cozy and inviting. Colorful tapestries hang on the walls, and brilliant rugs, varying in shapes and sizes, cover the floors. Tables are low to the ground, surrounded by pillows, as it is traditional to dine relaxed, sitting on the floor. For those not comfortable with, or unable to sit on the ground, Western-style tables and chairs are available on request in an adjoining room.
Once seated, relaxed and comfy on the pillows, a ceremonial, pre-meal hand washing is offered. Warm water is brought to the table in what looks like a giant, golden teapot, then poured over your hands. A large white towel for drying is supplied in lieu of a napkin.
The hand-washing ritual is important because, traditionally, Moroccan food is eaten without utensils -- scoop with fingers, lift to mouth. It can be a bit messy, but there is something pure and pleasurable about eating with your fingers.
The evening's special event, it turns out, was student night --belly- dancing student night. Held once a month, the event allows local belly-dancing students to shake, isolate and rotate their groove thangs in front of friends, family and any other diners who unsuspectingly wander in.
On this particular evening, we did not order from the regular menu, but chose from a buffet, which I found out later, always accompanies student night (show and buffet, a deal at $15).
The buffet offers six items, three from the menu, and three created for the occasion: roasted lamb, spicy chicken in paprika, salmon in saffron and garlic sauce, vegetables m'hammer (sauted in garlic, paprika, lemon and olives), rice with saffron, and couscous with vegetables, raisins, onions and garbanzos. Bread, soup, tea and dessert are included in the price of the buffet, and are brought to the table separately.
Our meal began with homemade, honey-wheat bread, and Sharba, a vegetarian, lentil-based soup. Spiced with cumin, cinnamon and turmeric, it was served in small bowls for easy sipping.
Next came the trip to the buffet. While all of the dishes were wonderfully prepared and seasoned, the lamb was the standout. Braised in garlic, turmeric, black pepper, a hint of cinnamon and bay leaves, it was tender and flavorful, served in small chunks -- perfect for finger nibbling.
The other table favorite was the salmon. Incredibly moist, soaking in a marinade of garlic, saffron, a bit of lemon and a bit of paprika, it was the perfect accompaniment to scoop with the rice, but also stood well on its own.
The spicy chicken, though very flavorful, was not all that spicy. It is good to note that on the regular menu, the spice on any dish can be adjusted upon request.
On another evening, I had a chance to order from the regular menu, which offers 26 different entrees, including rabbit and duck. We chose lamb with honey and almonds ($13.95), and chicken with lemon and olives ($12.95). All entrees on the menu are available a la carte ($10.95-$15.95), or can be served as part of a six-course meal ($20-$25 per person).
The a la carte portions were substantial. The lamb was tender and sweet, cooked in cinnamon and nutmeg, then rolled in sesame seeds and almond slivers.
The chicken was stewed in garlic, ginger and turmeric with just a hint of lemon, providing nice flavor without being too overwhelming. (It also kept the dish from being just another garlic and chicken variation.)
But back to the special student night. After dinner, tea was served, a sweetened mint tea that cleansed the palate for dessert, a small piece of homemade baklava.
Finally, the show began. One after another, belly dancers of all ages and shapes took to the floor, performing traditional routines to African and Middle Eastern music. Scarves, small oil lamps and finger cymbals were incorporated into some of the dances, turning this Manitou barn into an exotic harem.
Student night usually takes place on the last Wednesday of every month, but call to make sure. Dinner begins at 6 p.m. The show begins around 7. Reservations are recommended. It is a great way to get a taste, literally, of what Tajine Alami has to offer, in food and atmosphere. But whether you visit on student night or a weekend evening, one thing is for sure: You won't leave hungry.
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