Phantom Diner

Taste of Morocco on Third Street

Written by witf.org, | Sep 12, 2014 8:52 AM
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Asalah Moroccan Cuisine on North Third Street in Harrisburg

Phantom followers know by now after all, it’s been 27 years — that the Phantom not only enjoys new places, but also is a big backer of those who boldly try new things

In addition, I tend to support urban dining because Central PA’s cities have so much to offer. When it comes to interesting restaurants, I believe there’s no such thing as one too many.

And so I offer you Asalah Moroccan Cuisine. It opened in March in midtown Harrisburg along the Third Street corridor, one of the most eclectic and promising sections of the capital city.

Asalah (the name means “purity”) is on the corner at 1014 N. Third St. in a spot that once housed Nick’s (now in New Cumberland) and then the Soup Spot (which closed last year). It is next to Pastorante, a wonderful little homemade pasta place. It’s also across the street from Good Taste Chinese Food.

The mix makes for a nice little international triangle of culinary choices. And for anyone of a certain age who grew up in Harrisburg, this is noteworthy.

And it’s an act of bravery to offer Moroccan cuisine in a region where many diners rate national chain restaurants along fourlane highways as among their favorite places to eat. (I said the same about Arepa City, a great little Latin place on Harrisburg’s downtown Second Street, when it opened in 2009, and it’s still going strong.)

Asalah’s atmosphere is a bit of a mix. There are 10 or so nice four-top tables on a short and carpeted riser running the length of the restaurant. Some tables are beside big windows overlooking Third Street. There’s also a long counter and, sadly, a big-screen TV that was on during my dinner visit. Just seems like some low-volume Moroccan music would work better here.

But Asalah’s owner, Brahim Gamal, who grew up in Morocco, greets diners personally and is more than happy to chat up his menu, explain his food and offer suggestions for newcomers. All his dishes are made in-house from scratch. All are reasonably priced. And Asalah’s is BYOB. A couple can dine well and take a full meal’s worth of leftovers home (all portions are large) for under $50.

The dinner menu is large. Pricing includes that ever-annoying “and 99 cents,” so I’ll be rounding up. Here are some basics.

Appetizers run from $3 for Harira soup — a Moroccan classic, tomato-based with lentils and chick peas — to $7 for a “trio of salad.” This latter dish is plenty big for two to share. It is sautéed eggplant, marinated diced carrots with garlic and lemon, and grilled peppers with a cumin vinaigrette. It’s quite good, flavorful and lighter than it looks. It would have gone well with some Moroccan bread. None arrived at any time. (There was a basket of what appeared to be white Italian bread brought out later but it seemed out of place, even lost, and went untouched).

Entrées are priced from $10 for a mixed vegetable dish with ginger sauce and served with preserved lemons and olives to $15 for lamb with prunes in a light honey sauce. Most entrées are $14 or $15. There’s a chicken kabob with rice, a fish sharmoula tagine (served in a Northern Africanstyle earthenware pot) and Cornish hen with onion saffron sauce.

My dining partner had lamb tfaya tagine (which was lamb simmered in ginger and caramelized onions with raisins and cinnamon), $15. The dish came covered and was delicious, though the lamb tended toward tough.

I chose a Moroccan classic, chicken bastilla, which is essentially chicken pie and therefore technically, or at least in intent, not far from the classic Pennsylvania chicken pot pie. Except chicken bastilla is actually baked and pie-like. It comes in a light, crispy phyllo dough shell that’s topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon. It’s filled with chicken, egg and almonds and is different, if a little dry, and very tasty. At Asalah, it’s $14 and big enough for two to share. I ate more than a lot and only ate about half. (Another caution: A side dish of yellow rice for $3 is large enough for two to share.)

I assume Asalah offers desserts, but none was offered because the level of service, which started out as very attentive, declined as our meal progressed. There is hot green tea with mint from the familiar curved Moroccan teapots. But we decided to pass.

Asalah is open for lunch, offering lamb or beef wraps, a chicken Caesar salad, a burger with Moroccan spices, beef or lamb sausage and more. And it offers take-out.

I worry about new restaurants offering ethnic cuisine. I want them to survive because culinary diversity is so desirable and good for any city or region.

If you’ve had Moroccan food, I think you’ll like Asalah. And if you haven’t, you should try it.

THE PHANTOM DINER HAS BEEN A LONGTIME RESTAURANT REVIEWER FOR CENTRAL PA MAGAZINE.

ASALAH MOROCCAN CUISINE
1014 N. Third St., Harrisburg
717.409.8965. Call for hours.
Accepts major credits; BYOB; street parking.

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