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There are too few restaurants in Orange County that do tagine. The Moroccan specialty is named after the earthenware pot that functions as both the cooking vessel and the serving plate. The secret and magic of a tagine lies in its most recognizable part: the conical lid. The sloped sides supposedly redirect all the moisture back into the food as it cooks. But more than anything, a tagine's most important purpose is presentation. The whole vessel is brought out to your table, whereupon the bullhorn-shaped lid is taken off right in front of you, usually with flourish, aromatic steam escaping and revealing the slow-cooked stew beneath. Just as with the heavy cast-iron cauldrons the Koreans use for their soups and Mexican-Americans for their fajita platters, a tagine brings the immediacy of the kitchen to the dining room; you're essentially eating right out of the pot.
Village Mediterranean Rim offers a half-dozen tagines starting with one that has a lamb meatloaf simmered with dried apricots, onion marmalade and wine. This is Moroccan food without the employment of any belly dancers or, really, anything that would indicate the restaurant is a Moroccan cuisine specialist. In fact, you could argue that Village Mediterranean Rim's true calling isn't Moroccan cuisine, but rather game. The kitchen does an antelope tagine, serves a wild boar sausage with ravioli and braises legs of elk, which isn't even cooked in a tagine.
If you walked into the restaurant without reading the menu, you'd think the place was an Italian joint, with its glossy prints of unspecific but idyllic vineyard scenes and wine bottles. And the space is tiny, hardly the size of the bar area of most restaurants. It's the kind of restaurant you might discover by accident while window-shopping along San Clemente's quaint downtown. And when you do find it, if it's a particularly nice day, you'd choose to dine outside, where there's a pair of small tables on a slightly elevated balcony bordered by plants. Or if it's cold, you could take the seats closest to the kitchen—the restaurant is so small you can actually feel the heat of the stoves warming your back.
123 Avenida Del Mar
San Clemente, CA 92672
Region: San Clemente
You look at the specials menu first. There might be antelope short ribs, or a tagine with buffalo and wild boar, or a rich moussaka. There's most certainly going to be a butternut squash soup—a permanent special—served in a bowl the size of a sink, with a spoon to match. When you take your first sip, you find it's not unlike other butternut squash soups you've had: creamy, thick, filling, decorated with white lines of cream. But at the same time, Village Mediterranean Rim's rendition is unusual; it's tangier by at least two pH units, as though a squeeze of lemon was added, and there's also the slightest suggestion of curry.
When you order the leg of elk, you discover there's something else you can't put your finger on. You decide it's not the meat, which eats as though it were lean beef, simmered in uniform brown cubes that surrender at the touch of a fork. No, there's something else that's intriguingly addictive and warming about this stew. Is it the chocolate? The cumin in the spice mixture Moroccans call chermoula? Or is it because something you thought was going to be exotic and unapproachably gamy turns out tasting like good ol' comfort grub made by mom? You also find walnuts, carrots, beets, parsnips and wedges of potato that make your tongue twitch. But then you locate its power source, its soul, the thing that pushed it over the edge: ginger.
And as it turns out the kitchen uses more ginger for the seafood tagine. You know this because you bite into the nob thinking it's a piece of fish. But it's a soothing presence in a stew already fortified with saffron, Sauvignon blanc, lemon and fennel. You use the sandy grains of the couscous the kitchen has served on the edge of the lapping stew to sop up the rest of this cioppino-like meal full of salmon, unidentified white fish, shrimp and garbanzo beans.
When you move on to dessert—a wiggly panna cotta served in a wine goblet and drizzled with a strawberry purée that you decide might be better than the zabaglione—you realize the place isn't really Moroccan. But because it does what it does well, even this matters less and less, just as a tagine is nothing but a vessel for what's ultimately served inside.