K and I recently spent parts of five days in Boston for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference (AWP), trying to avoid being sucked into a vortex of hipster creative writers. That's part of the reason for my recent hiatus from blogging here. The other part is the mutant virus I caught while there, maybe exacerbated by the wicked ugly blizzard, as I believe some might say in Boston, that we walked through for a few days. It was a fun trip despite those nastier elements, and we managed to eat our way through the city in a pretty satisfying manner--I'll be documenting some of those adventures soon.
But one food-related regret from our time in Boston is that we didn't manage to get to Baraka Cafe in Cambridge, even though we spent our final night only blocks from the restaurant and had a high recommendation of the restaurant from K's brother, who went to college just a few blocks away. We'd eaten already during a stroll down Mass Ave. and simply couldn't pack one more meal into our bellies. A shame, though being only a few hours away from the city tempers some of that regret. We'll eat there eventually.
Another thing that makes it easier to forget missing out on Baraka is the presence of Tara Kitchen in Schenectady. I know this restaurant, which opened just about a year ago, has gotten some rave reviews and good publicity already, but I noticed it missing in Metroland's Readers Poll results. And after having lunch there just once so far, I can say that its exclusion is at least a small shame.
I also remembered that lunch at Tara when I saw a recent post by Steve Barnes at his Table Hopping Blog asking readers to share their pick for best meal for $10 or less in the area. There were some good ideas tossed out there--Steve's mention of Taiwan Noodle, for instance, and a reader's recommendation of the chicken and waffle at The Flying Chicken--but I don't know if you can score any higher on the flavor-per-dollar scale than with lunch at Tara Kitchen.
That was noticeable even before we ordered any food; the first thing you receive at Tara is a small, complimentary glass of Moroccan tea, which was striking for the combination of minty flavor and sweetness.
Also noticeable? The woman who runs Tara Kitchen seems to have created, at least for the lunch crowd, something of a Cheers-like atmosphere; she chatted knowingly with what seemed like some regulars, both at the counter and tables, but also was warm and welcoming to newcomers like us. She also did all of the cooking, mostly just a few feet away from where we were seated, so we knew how things were being made and the dedication she was putting into this establishment.
You can eat cheaply for lunch at Tara even if you add in appetizers, as K and I did. We tried both the Spicy Harissa with Pita Bread and the Potato Patties with Mixed Vegetables, each for $3. If you've never before tried harissa and enjoy vibrant, spicy flavors, you're in for a treat. A simple spread of this on the pita packs a bold punch of chili peppers, with the smoothness from being blended with olive oil. The potato patties, while still tasty and satisfying, were milder in flavor and simply had a hard time competing when presented beside the harissa.
I ordered the Pita Pizza with ground lamb, tomato jam, cilantro, and caramelized baby onions. Refer back to this piece for all the pictures and description you could ever need of the version with preserved lemons and green olives, which I'm sure is really good, but the pita pizza I ordered was also undeniably delicious. The pita held up pretty well with all those ingredients on it, and all the different elements layered on top came together perfectly. I'm a sucker for lamb in any form, and here it brought that little bit of gaminess that usually puts it ahead of beef in my book.
The tomato jam tried to steal the show, though. They sell it packaged at Tara Kitchen, and it's described on their website as "made with 3 kinds of tomatoes, fresh herbs and our spice blend, this chunky sauce can be used to add bold flavour to any dish you cook." This is not the typical tomato sauce you'll get on your average pizza, but something much more exotic--and yet it brings together all the other elements of the pizza.
K got the Ground Chicken Kebab with Pomegranate Seeds, which was served with a side of what we assumed to be their mixed vegetable tagine. The chicken was really flavorful, cooked with an array of spices (which are hard to identify considering how the flavors all came together). Many of us have had enjoyable kebabs of all kinds before, but this one was unique for the spice blend and inclusion of pomegranate seeds. And while it was a bit salty, we wouldn't say it was problematically so. The tagine was good enough that I'd be tempted to order it in entree form if it weren't for all the other exciting items on the menu. The tagine dish is named after the vessel it's cooked in, which seems to do a great job of steaming the vegetables and really melding the spice flavors together.
One of these days we're going to get to Tara Kitchen for dinner, when they have a wider array of items available on the menu. But the exciting thing about Tara is that several of the items on the lunch menu aren't available for dinner. Okay, so if you can't get out to Schenectady for lunch between Tuesday and Friday that might be a little more disappointing than exciting. But if the opportunity is there, it definitely makes for a good reason to stop in earlier in the day. I certainly can't wait for the opportunity to return.
Tara Kitchen is located at 431 Liberty Street in Schenectady.