At Tissa's Le Souk du Maroc in Old Saybrook, the heady aromas and flavors of Moroccan cuisine are served in historic surroundings.
Five years ago, Kathy and Mohammed Benjdid moved their food business from the Boston Post Road to the James Pharmacy, a notable building built in 1790. For close to a century, the extended James family operated a pharmacy and a soda fountain in the structure. Their reign came to a close in 1967 when Anna Louise James, Connecticut's first black female pharmacist, retired. The building also was the birthplace of Harlem Renaissance writer Ann Petry.
The Benjdids pay tribute to the building's history with newspaper articles, photographs and other memorabilia from the James family displayed throughout the shop. The working soda fountain, which was built in 1896, is still outfitted with the original cabinetry, marble countertops and tables and chairs.
Kathy Benjdid, chef at Tissa's (pronounced tee-sahs), had a background in Mediterranean cooking before she met her Moroccan husband, who is chef de cuisine at the Mystic Marriott's Octagon restaurant. Her recently revamped menu celebrates Moroccan cuisine with touches from other Mediterranean countries.
"I'm really excited about the menu," Benjdid says of the blending of popular dishes from the previous menu and new choices. "One of my favorite new dishes is the Hummus Kwarma. The hummus plate includes lamb, almonds, mint and all things wonderful from Morocco."
Benjdid prepares the hummus in the traditional Moroccan style: the chick peas are slowly cooked until them become almost paste-like, then whirled in the food processor for a consistent texture. The hummus is made without tahini and flavored with lemon juice, cumin and other seasonings. "This is a Middle Eastern dish that I gave a Moroccan flair," she says.
The slow-cooked Moroccan stews known as tagines remain on the menu, but Benjdid added another classic dish, a savory pie wrapped in layers of flaky phyllo leaves.
"Bystilla embodies Moroccan cooking," says the chef, who offers both a chicken and a tuna filling. "It is a beautiful sweet and savory pie with layers of buttered phyllo. It's traditional to put egg into the bystilla [filling], but I serve [the pie] over arugula and an over-easy egg on top. It's a variation on tradition, but [the bystilla] still has all the traditional components."
Also new to the menu are a lamb burger on ciabatta roll and a roast lamb sandwich with pickled onions and Moroccan tomato jam. The menu also features wraps, sandwiches, and vegetarian options such as a salad of sliced oranges, green olives, orange blossom water and chopped mint on a bed of baby arugula, and a five-vegetable wrap with goats cheese and preserved lemon.
Prices range from $6.99 to $14.99 at lunch and $6.99 to $19.95 at dinner. Although the menu spans lunch lunch and dinner, dinner entrees include bread, olive oil and a salad.
Tissa's also has a sweet side, beginning in the soda fountain. Benjdid stocks a full roster of Connecticut-made J. Foster ice cream flavors. A signature flavor, made exclusively for Tissa's, blends chopped dates and almonds in an orange blossom and cinnamon ice cream.
Moroccan cookies are available throughout the day but step into the spotlight between 3 and 4 p.m. when Benjdid serves tea. After three years of research, Benjdid found a Moroccan woman who makes traditional cookies. "They are all handmade, and it's a very long process," she says. "The cookies are very intricate. Some of the doughs have to be made ahead. Some of the doughs are fried first and then soaked in honey. Some need specific molds."
Cookies are priced per piece and can be ordered with a pot of Moroccan mint tea – a gunpowder green tea so named because the rolled tea leaves look like gunpowder – to savor individually or to share. Late afternoon tea is a tradition in Morocco, says Benjdid whose husband, Mohammed, comes from the village of Tissa in that country, because Moroccans tend to eat dinner later in the evening.
Benjdid also teaches cooking classes, both in the evening and as weekend retreats. The Friday-through-Sunday course includes accommodations at the Deacon Timothy Pratt Bed & Breakfast, Tissa's next door neighbor; an opening wine-and-appetizers reception; a full breakfast, prepared by Benjdid at the inn on Saturday morning; transportation to the Weekend Kitchen in Essex where the Saturday interactive class takes place; an evening meal, served family style, of the four or five dishes prepared in class, and Sunday breakfast. Information is available at http://www.DiningAtTissas.com.
>>Tissa's Le Souk du Maroc, 2 Pennywise Lane in Old Saybrook, is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Seating is limited, but the restaurant takes reservations. Information: 860-395-1781.