By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Medina Oven & Wine Bar is in Victory Park, so of course it is a restaurant with lounge-like accents. Nevertheless, there are no hookah pipes exhaling their fruity fume. There are no belly dancers oscillating their midriff folds like lapping shore waves, though a server admits the belly part is a possibility for this well-appointed Moroccan enclave.
Medina is a tiny cubicle with an open kitchen in the rear fronted with a polished counter and raised seating. A cave of an oven glows in the background. Here pizzas are baked—crisp pies forged with pizza stones. Thick rich sauce is smeared over the mottled surface, webbed in melted mozzarella, the cracker crisp edges never scorched or charred.
Though pizza isn't Moroccan, it can be dressed as such. The lamb sausage pie with feta, peppers and olives plus red onion has slices of sweet lamb, plump and pliable with little surges of fennel and oregano and cilantro. The sausage is house-made. It's difficult to imagine how anything could be house-made in this dwarfish dining space with barely 50 seats and change if you count the patio.
2304 Victory Park Lane
Dallas, TX 75219-7646
Region: Uptown & Oak Lawn
Appetizer platter $15
Grilled chicken sandwich $8
Lamb sausage pizza $13
Chicken brochette $7
Spinach phyllo $7
Sea bass tagine $23
Lamb chops $20
Crème brûlée $7
Yet lots of things are composed in-house at Medina. Olives are house-cured in a brew of parsley, cilantro, garlic and chopped preserved lemon (lemons pickled in lemon juice and kosher salt). They're lacerated with harissa, a potently piquant paste rendered from chilies, garlic, coriander and cumin—a sort of Moroccan sambal sauce.
The cure creates an exotically broad flavor swath that strides across the palate with warmth and headiness that is difficult to describe. Harissa is woven into the aioli on the mixed appetizer platter: those olives along with a smoked eggplant relish that isn't so smoky, and a roasted pepper relish plus a crock of hummus with a shimmer of olive oil pooling over the slumping edges of pulverized chickpea. A basket of puffy pita wedges exhales steam. Slather one with a scoop of hummus and a spread of barely smoked eggplant relish. Try another with the hummus and the roasted pepper relish.
Medina is a trove of North African accessorizing slicked into an urban lounge milieu, as only Victory Park could spawn. Exotic lanterns and intricate metal weaves finesse the walls. Intertwined metal loops—like the orbits of electrons in Bohr's model of the atom—ring suspended lighting fixtures. Upholstery is done up in saturated reds and lavenders and burgundies plus olive oil greens. Shimmering seat cushions in orange and green pad Spartan metal chairs.
Outside, a curvaceous Victory water feature with multiple spigot points splashes just beyond the patio, a square gated space with tables and metal seating benches stocked with pillows. A dull office building—soon to be stocked with litigants—and a condo monolith with living spaces starting at about a half million dollars or so rise nearby.
This must be the future Medina is banking on, because now the dining activity is mostly sparse. It shouldn't be. Moroccan cuisine sweats a wealth of exotic spices. It's an intricate mesh of French, Spanish, Jewish and especially Arab influences. It merges meats and fruits, such as in Medina's beef tenderloin tagine with poached prunes. Its spice lavishness is expressed in complex blends of ground seeds and roots and leaves, in sharp contrast to the richly herbed European Mediterranean cookery. These intricate blends are employed with exquisite subtlety, enhancing rather than convoluting inherent flavors—a neat trick given the broad sensual power in these blends.
There is cumin, saffron, cayenne and paprika. There is garlic and cardamom and clove plus ginger, a spice that is used almost exclusively in powder form rather than as shreds or shavings or minces of root. These complex amalgamations have names such as ras el hanout (head of the shop), which is the secret proprietary formula—composed of 20, 30, even 100 different spices—of shops, companies or individuals.
Grilled lamb chops shimmer in ras el hanout vinaigrette, reduced, sassed with cumin, turmeric, mace, coriander and paprika. Despite this liberal strafing of spice, the lamb hovers just a few levels above inert.
Sea bass tagine features another blend—shermoula, a feisty pinch of vigor reserved almost exclusively for Moroccan seafood cookery. It's laced with lemon, which adds simmer to its cumin and paprika and ginger and parsley punch. The shermoula is blended into a fresh tomato sauce, creating a searing brisk shroud over the flaky, sweet fish that peels off in curled flakes—almost certainly not slow-cooked, stew-like in traditional tagine fashion. Though it goads vigorously, the sauce never smothers the fish.
Chicken brochettes, skewered chunks of jaundiced meat marinated with saffron, citrus and shallots, is dry and a little mealy, though the accompanying brisk diced cucumber and tomato salad compensates.
There are oven-baked phyllo tubes—delicately flaky pastry tightly binding shrimp or goat cheese or baby spinach with preserved lemon. The latter, laced with garlic, paprika, cumin and olives, is a rich tussle of green-leaf piquancy and extracted lemon zest tempered with wispy phyllo layers.
You can pair these dishes with a glass of Amazir Beni M'Tir, a Moroccan red wine blended from Carignan, Grenache and Cinsault. It's a bit tight, but in time it unfurls into elegant layers of black fruit with an assertive acid layer that finishes in mellow complexity. Also amongst the French and Spanish and California and South American bottlings is a white from the Moroccan wine region of Guerrouane, where white wines are often made from Muscat.