The Commons Kitchen got off to a sputtering start with a bit of an identity problem. It opened about a year ago, in a building on the Ithaca Commons which had been a clothing store and then an Italian pizza shop.
Initially, they offered traditional American breakfasts, including eggs, pancakes, omelets, and breakfast sandwiches. As lunch hour approached, they switched to American sandwich fare, and then at dinnertime, it morphed into an exclusively Moroccan restaurant. After about nine months, the chef became ill and the restaurant closed completely for about two months.
Then, in late spring, the restaurant reopened with a new formula eschewing American breakfasts and lunches and serving exclusively Moroccan dishes. It’s now a most welcome addition to the Commons.
The same menu applies for both lunch and dinner, so there’s no upcharge for dinner. The only major difference worth mentioning is that real water glasses are offered at dinner instead of the plastic ones served at lunch.
The Commons Kitchen has a comfortable ambience, starting with a waiting area by the windows fronting on the Commons. Two plush couches surround a small circular table with four backless stools, which can be used as a dining area for customers looking for a more authentic Moroccan experience.
The Moroccan specials on the menu are tagines, pitas, couscous and four specials, including a veggie plate of stewed vegetables with falafel and baba ganoush. Not familiar with Moroccan food? Maybe you’d enjoy the Mezza appetizer ($11.99), a sampler of zaalouk, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, baba ganoush, falafel, feta, and olives. It’s large enough to be a small entrée and could be a practical introduction to North African food.
The largest group, with five choices, is tagines. Tagine in Moroccan cuisine has a double meaning: it can refer to the North African cookware, made from ceramic or clay and shaped as a dome, as well as the food that is cooked inside it. In Morocco, tagines are often beautifully decorated and thought of as art. The idea of the dome is to trap condensation and have it drop to the bottom, where it adds moisture to the food that’s cooking. The food is usually slow-cooked and is basically a stew composed of poultry, meat, or fish combined with vegetables or fruit.
I’ve ordered the Marrakech tagine ($16.99), a whole lamb shank including the bone, combined with peas and potatoes. It was delicious, and the dome top, which the server removed and returned to the kitchen, certainly did its job of keeping the meal moist and flavorful. Their most popular tagine is a berbere tagine, which also includes a lamb shank; however, this one is accompanied by prunes and apricots and is therefore sweeter than the Marrakech. There is also a tagine that includes stewed seasonal vegetables accented with herbs and spices, which could be perfect for vegetarians looking to escape the often boring soups and salads posing as vegetarian offerings at other restaurants.
Another section includes authentic couscous, a North African dish made of small pellets of durum wheat semolina often topped with a stew, as it is here. There are three, made with lamb shanks, marinated chicken, or vegetables, and accompanied with seasonal vegetables. They’re all perfectly cooked and tasty.
If you have room for dessert, I recommend the homemade baklava rather than the chocolate cake, which is not homemade and is a rather common dessert in other restaurants. I had to use a knife to cut through the layers of phyllo (filo), which I mean as a compliment even though it wasn’t flaky like others I’ve enjoyed.
There is no liquor license and none has been applied for. This is based on the philosophical and religious orientation of the owners. Patrons can order Moroccan mint tea or are welcome to bring their own beer or wine with no setup charge. There are large unsightly soda machines near the kitchen; however, there are plans to remove these and still offer the sodas.
The Moroccan owners, who are spending the summer in their home country are expected to return from Morocco in about two months after purchasing many items to dress up The Commons Kitchen. Included will be native carpets which will soften the noise, although it’s not excessive now anyway, and add to the authentic ambience, which already includes Moroccan music. It is expected that several additional items will be added to the menu in autumn.