Barbary Fig: Cuisine of the Maghreb on Grand Avenue in St. Paul

Chef Brahim Hadj-Moussa at Barbary Fig

I have never quite understood why the cuisine of the Maghreb — that is, north Africa west of Egypt — isn't more popular in the United States. It's really a Mediterranean cuisine, closely related in style to Italian and Spanish and Turkish and Middle Eastern, with many of the same ingredients: tomatoes and peppers and olives and capers, fresh seafood, dates and flaky pastries. 

In France, it's one of the most popular ethnic cuisines — Moroccan and Algerian restaurants and cafes advertising couscous and tajines are a common sight. In fact, thanks to Google, I just learned that couscous was recently found to be the third-most-popular dish in France. Couscous is steamed semolina (cracked wheat) topped with a meat or vegetable stew; tajines are stews, traditionally cooked in a special clay pot with a conical lid; typical tajines combine lamb or chicken with olives or a variety of fruits and spices. 

But in the Twin Cities, it's almost unknown. Saffron, in the Minneapolis warehouse district, does offer four tajines on its menu: one with lamb shank with quince cooked in fall spices with white beans, sesame seeds and preserved lemon ($25), and another, which I enjoyed recently, made with duck meatballs in a sweet and spicy tomato sauce ($19/$27). 

In all of Minnesota, the only restaurant dedicated to this great cuisine is the Barbary Fig on Grand Avenue  in St. Paul. I've been a fan of the Barbary Fig for decades, but somehow, it had fallen off my radar — it had been years since my last visit. But I happened to stop by for lunch, and was delighted to find that it was as good as ever. 

The same chef-owner, Brahim Hadj-Moussa, affectionately known as Hadj, was still in the kitchen, and little else seemed to have changed. Even the prices seemed to have changed very little — Barbary Fig is one of the few restaurants I can think of in the Twin Cities that offer wine and beer, an intimate bistro ambience, and most dinner entrees under $12. 

Barbary Fig couscous with chickenHighlights of the lunchtime visit included a plate of couscous topped with a stew of boneless chicken, carrots and leeks with a tomato and toasted sesame seed chutney; and my companion's open-faced lamb and bleu cheese sandwich with roasted red peppers and artichoke hearts, served over a toasted brioche. Both dishes had a delicious lightness and freshness about them. 

Barbary Fig lamb sandwich

On a return visit, the dinner menu offered nightly specials ($14.25) that ranged from lamb shank and rabbit to seafood. We started with the brik, an appetizer of tuna wrapped in filo pastry, a popular street food in Algeria; and a salad of mixed greens, tossed with goat cheese, artichoke puree, olives and chopped walnuts. These were pleasant, though I don't recall finding any of the grilled eggplant that was listed as one of the salad ingredients. Later, Hadj mentioned that with advance notice, he can make a more traditional version of the brik, filled with chopped egg and other ingredients. 

Barbary Fig shrimp with tomato sauce

For our entrees, we chose a nightly special of shrimp in sauce of tomatoes, garlic and capers, served over rice ($14.25), and a vegetarian entree of fava beans, rice, carrots and cabbage topped with an apricot chutney. Both were good enough to be enjoyable, but the next time I visit, I'll probably try something different, like the couscous with merguez sausage, yams, caramelized onions and currants ($11.95), or another of the ever-changing nightly specials. 

I'd also like to return for the Sunday brunch, which ranges from crepes with caramelized pears and chocolate ($7) to eggs scrambled with merguez sausage, caramelized onions and fresh tomato ($8). 

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Jeremy Iggers's picture
Jeremy Iggers

Jeremy Iggers (jeremy [at] tcmediaalliance [dot] org) is the executive director of the Twin Cities Media Alliance. Find Jeremy on Google

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Still At It

I first went to Barbary Fig when it opened decades ago.  Once was in my top five favorites in St Paul.  I had a friend who worked in the same block, and we would meet there for lunch. I touted it to all the people I knew who liked ethnic food.  I think it inspired me to learn a tajine recipe.  Two unusual aspects of that recipe were cinnamon sticks and orange peels. I don't own a tajine, so I cooked mine in a dutch oven.  At one point, I enrolled in a cooking class and Hadj taught how to make vegetable couscous.  He showed how he used vegetable scraps in making broth.

I'm sure everything is as good as always.  In good weather, he has a big deck in front with umbrellas.  It seems like a very continental ambience.  Anyway, something interesting to try for anyone who doesn't know this kind of food.

 

 

Our Favorite Restaurant

My wife and I have been enjoying Hadj and his amazing cooking for over 17 years now.  We've walked through snow storms to get his merguez cous-cous, and the bread pudding is a must.

I agree with Jeremy... you can't find these flavors anywhere else.  Hadj is a treasure and makes everyone feel like a regular.  If you haven't experienced this wonderful place, I encourage you to give it a try.