Executive chef and co-owner Mia Achbania opens a colorful tajine in which Moroccan stews are cooked or warmed and served in the kitchen at Argana Restaurant & Bar.
Executive chef and co-owner Mia Achbania opens a colorful tajine in which Moroccan stews are cooked or warmed and served in the kitchen at Argana Restaurant & Bar.
<
1
2
3
4
5
>

Argana Restaurant & Bar at 325 North Main St. is open and welcoming customers to its exotic interior where you will be treated to both sweet and savory modern Moroccan cuisine and treated royally by Nordine Achbania and his staff.

Fear not that the flavors are foreign or the food spicy. Cumin, saffron, ginger, cilantro and parsley are among the herbs and spices used. “There is no curry in our food,” said co-owner Achbania. “It’s more about flavors and aroma. We don’t even have curry in the building.”

Argana, named after the argan tree that is exclusive to Morocco and the oil from it is used in many beauty products, is equally special in that it is the only Moroccan restaurant in Westchester and Fairfield counties. The closest is in New York City.

The creation of Moroccan-born Nordine and his wife Soumia “Mia” Achbania, Argana is their first restaurant. Nordine has managed several restaurants, most recently Louie’s in Cos Cob and Polpo in Greenwich, the latter for about 10 years. Mia, the executive chef, designed the menu and developed the recipes. She is doing the cooking with the help of two sous chefs, one of whom is also the pastry chef. Joao Rafael Alves worked with Nordine at Polpo for five years. His desserts, especially the napoleon, are to die for.

They decided on Moroccan food because “this area of Port Chester and Westchester needs something different,” said Nordine before Argana opened on Mar. 21. “There are too many Italian, French and Mexican restaurants.”

The couple, who came to the U.S. about two decades ago and settled in Port Chester for six years before moving to Greenwich, were walking to Kneaded Bread on North Main Street, their favorite place for breakfast, one day when Mia noticed the sign on the building that formerly housed nessa stating that it was available for lease.

“That’s how we found this place,” said Nordine, a most personable host.

“The way we designed the menu it is 65% Moroccan,” he said, adding that Moroccan cuisine is open, influenced by France and Spain. That’s why you’ll see appetizers like Mia Octopus ($15) and Argan Burrata ($12) and entrées like Double Cut Veal Chop ($36) and Angus Steak au Poivre ($38) on the menu. In addition, Moroccan cuisine is comprised of more than 3,500 dishes, so “it’s easy for us to switch dishes every three months.” At the end of May the Achbanias intend to slightly change the menu to feature more summer dishes.

Moroccan staples

Tajine, couscous and b’stilla are the Moroccan staples on the menu, b’stilla a dish that is more of a luxury for people with money in Morocco compared to the other two, according to Nordine.

A tajine is a conical clay pot, which dates back to ancient times, in which these succulent stews, also called tajine, are cooked. The pot allows the steam to rise, condense and drip back down into the stew. Most typical are the Beef Tajine ($28) and Chicken Tajine ($24), but there are also other varieties like sea bass ($27), lamb shank ($28) and lobster tail ($32) on the menu. I have tried the beef and lobster tail.

On my first visit to Argana, the beef tagine brought two large pieces of slow-cooked beef in a thick sweet sauce filled with prunes, apricots, toasted almonds and sesame seeds to give it texture and crunch. While the meat texture reminded me of that in beef stew, now Argana is using short ribs so the meat is even more tender and falling apart, said Nordine. That sounds like a good move. The Achbanias aim to please and this change was the direct result of customer feedback.

The lobster tail is cooked in the shell in a delicate sauce made with spinach, red pepper and white wine.

Couscous, the most widely known Moroccan dish which I recall eating in Paris as a college student, consists of slow-cooked vegetables and braised beef or lamb ($27) served in a nest of couscous (small steamed balls of semolina). So far I have only sampled the Vegetarian Couscous ($22) which puts mixed seasonal vegetables (there were wide strips of carrots and zucchini on top of pieces of parsnip, but they vary according to what’s fresh at the market) over steamed, fluffy couscous. I enjoyed the subtle flavor of this oh, so healthy entrée.

B’stilla, beautifully presented baked in a star shape with lemon slices on top the time I ordered the seafood version and with cross hatching on top on another visit when another guest in our party ordered the chicken version, is like nothing I’ve ever had before. It’s definitely fit for a king! The Seafood B’stilla is a savory Moroccan pie filled with white fish, calamari, shrimp and scallops all chopped up with vermicelli, black mushrooms, olives and house-made preserved lemon enclosed in phyllo dough. It’s a tasty, crunchy, melt-in-your mouth mélange accented by lemon.

Must-tries

Besides those staples, the Moroccan Harira ($10), authentic soup filled with lentils, chickpeas and celery, the Savory Briout ($13), puff pastry stuffed with ground beef flavored with Moroccan inspired herbs and spices like cilantro and parsley, the Fromage Cigar ($11), phyllo dough rolled with goat cheese, finely chopped onion, parsley and thyme into a heavenly, crunchy cigar-shaped delicacy that once again melts in your mouth, and Harissa Shrimp ($14), six medium shrimp in a perfectly spiced tomato and red pepper sauce, are among the must-tries at Argana.

Hospitality/family dinners

A good way to get a sampling of many of these Moroccan specialties in one fell swoop is by ordering a Moroccan Hospitality Dinner (for two or more), which ranges in price from $30 to $60 per guest depending on which one you order. My husband and I enjoyed the Atlas at $45 each which included eggplant and roasted tomato appetizers served with pita, the Moroccan soup, Briout, Beef Tajine, Seafood B’stilla and a selection of three desserts—the amazingly light, scrumptious napoleon, crème brulée and a lovely apple blossom pastry. To go with your dessert, be sure to try the slightly sweet Moroccan menthe tea served in ornate glasses.

By the way, Atlas Mountain, in the center of Morocco, is the region best known for its cuisine.

For a lower-priced version, go for the Sunday Night Family Dinner which features soup, assorted Moroccan appetizers, Chicken or Beef Tajine or Lamb Couscous and the chef’s dessert of the day, all for $25.

Cocktails and wine

Even the cocktails ($12) have a Moroccan influence, flavored with fresh mint leaves, mint tea and ginger. The Atlas Mule, for instance, is made with fig flavored vodka and ginger beer.

The wine list, which includes more than 85 bottles from California, Italy, Argentina, Chile and France, was created by a sommelier from one of the largest wine companies in New York City, with prices ranging from $25-$120. Wines are listed under categories such as Truth, Beauty and Chaotic Order, with a description as to their character underneath each.

Brunch, lunch and Mother’s Day

Argana, which is serving Sunday brunch and lunch the other days of the week except Monday, is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:45 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. “Those are the kitchen hours,” said Nordine. “You are welcome to stay as long as you want.”

Brunch, which costs $22 including a Bellini, Bloody Mary, Moroccan mint tea or fresh juice, features omelets, crepes, sandwiches, Moroccan pancakes, Moroccan brioche and other specialties. It is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

The lunch menu includes many of the Moroccan appetizers and entrées on the dinner menu plus salads, sandwiches and paninis. “Not one dish is over $20,” Nordine said proudly.

For Mother’s Day, Argana will serve an a la carte menu as well as a $28 three-course menu and a half-price wine list from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Kids will eat for $14.

Exotic décor

The décor is completely changed from the space’s nessa days. It is now bright and airy, exotic, and the bar has been moved from the right to the left side of the dining room.

Gorgeous handmade hanging lights imported from Morocco light up the dining room, which seats 85, including 12 at the bar. It is painted yellow and accented by deep red Moroccan designs, a Moroccan fountain painted on one door, a large mirror with an ornate frame, plates and a Moroccan arch leading into a deep red private room that can accommodate up to 25 people. Matching yellow cloths cover the tables which are offset by black cloth napkins and pretty round decorative candle globes. The lights with their various openings create interesting patterns on the walls after dark.

A French door opens up onto the beautifully landscaped patio, one of the nicest outdoor eating spots in Port Chester, which seats up to 120.

Below the patio is a bocce court, called petanque in Morocco, which has the same rules but uses a different size ball. Nordine is planning to spruce up the court, which dates from 1965 but which was fully renovated and used when nessa was in operation.

“I am planning to use it because I like the game,” he said. He already has a champagne and petanque event scheduled for Bastille Day on July 14 for the Greenwich Alliance Francaise.

Future events

In the future Argana may incorporate belly dancers as an added attraction 2-3 times per week without taking away from your meal, maybe a Moroccan band and Moroccan exotic nights with a belly dancer, Moroccan rugs on the floor and one long table with food served family style.

However, mainly the Achbanias want to concentrate on introducing guests to Moroccan culture, hospitality and cuisine.

Parking

Parking is on the street with optional valet parking on weekends. There is free parking on North Main Street between Horton Avenue and Terrace Avenue from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday.