If, dear reader, you're ready for a change-of-pace dining experience, allow me to recommend Dunes in Harrisburg, a smallish but friendly and very good Moroccan-themed restaurant.
Located on South Third Street away from Second Street's Restaurant Row but in close proximity to two other fine restaurants, El Sol and Bricco, this fusion-cuisine find is almost hidden.
Don't be fooled by the sort of seedy exterior of what was a diner-type breakfast/lunch place. Go inside and you'll be warmed at once by the coziness of Dunes and its welcoming servers.
Yes, there's still a lunch counter with a large Coke machine behind it. But get past it and sit at one of the comfy tables in the back, where dim lighting, big pillows, wall hangings, rugs and soft Mideastern music are as welcoming as the staff.
Dunes is BYOB. Our wine was opened immediately, and we were brought glasses, an impressive ice bucket, water and a nice basket of tasty fresh flatbread.
The menu is easy to deal with. Servers offer advice and recommendations. There's plenty of food per serving, and the price can't be beat. Two can dine healthily and well for less than $50. (If your service is as good as mine was, you'll also leave a nice tip.)
Starters include Moroccan salads, appetizers and soups such as harira soup (lentils, tomatoes, chickpeas, cilantro, celery and ginger in a veggie broth), hummus and couscous salad or bakoula (spinach with cumin, olives, garlic and lemon).
There are Mediterranean flavors such as shrimp pil pil, a Spanish dish of spicy, sautéed shrimp, eggplant soufflé with cheese or bell peppers roasted with garlic and goat cheese.
Soups, salads and appetizers range in price from $4.50 for the harira soup to $10 for the shrimp.
You might want to try a "tapas mix" of bakoula, hummus and zaalouk, a cooked eggplant salad. The "mix" is $8.50. (Not sure which wine goes best with zaalouk.)
My dining partner and I shared spinach bastilla, a traditional Moroccan dish of rolled phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. It was $8, delicious and easily enough for two to share.
I also had couscous salad and tasted a cucumber salad, both of which are worth ordering, though the former was a little dry.
Dunes offers a variety of kabob platters. There are chicken, lamb, beef, salmon, shrimp and traditional Moroccan kefta kabobs. Kefta is ground beef or lamb with cumin, paprika and minced onion. They're all in the $10 range and come with couscous salad, Mediterranean salad or bruschetta.
There's also lamb or beef shawarma and gyros made with chicken, lamb or beef. All these dishes come with lettuce, tomato, red onion, cucumber and cucumber sauce. All are also served with rice and all are in the $8 range.
Entrees are priced under $20 and include a selection of tagines, popular North African casserole/stew-like dishes in which fish, vegetables or meats are slow-cooked with lots of spices. At Dunes, the serving pieces are beautiful.
My table ordered a lamb tangine ($18.95) that came with tender and wonderful pieces of lamb, caramelized prunes and toasted sesame seeds, all simmered in, according to the menu, "our special 21 spices." (For fast-foodies, that's nearly double The Colonel's famous secret 11 herbs and spices.)
This is a wonderful dish and a house signature entree. It comes with rice. And all entrees also come with a salad or bruschetta.
We could have had a wild salmon tagine and a veggie or a beef tagine. But we opted for a marinated chicken dish with French influences that was served in the same beautiful dishware as was the lamb tagine.
This, too, was bursting with the kind of flavor that's all but unidentifiable because of the mix of spices. Suffice it to say, if you see a chicken entree on the menu (and you don't like lamb), order it.
Those with timid tastes can also dine at Dunes. The menu includes a few simpler dishes such as flounder with rosemary sauce served with asparagus and rice ($16).
There is, of course, baklava (just $2.50), but not always. Dunes was out of it the night I was there but made up for the loss by offering a "house special hot Moroccan tea" that, trust me, tastes like dessert.
It was freshly brewed, served in a gorgeous, ornate golden teapot and poured into small, thick glasses. It's a sweet orange blossom mint tea that's different and delish.
It's on the menu at $2 per person, but maybe you can find something that they're out of and hope your server is as kind as ours was.
The food here is far better than the location or the atmosphere, and the atmosphere, as mentioned, really is OK.
I worry that Dunes isn't in a part of the city that generates much foot traffic. And while I like and appreciate its sort of hideaway location, I also worry that it's too, well, hidden away.
Central PA's dining scene is greatly enhanced by a place such as Dunes, and the region could sure use more restaurants like it. I recommend it for lunch or dinner. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
19 S, 3rd St., Harrisburg
BYOB; takes major credit cards; street parking or lot at a half block away at Third and Chestnut; open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and for dinner on Saturday; takes reservations.
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