Day 79: Tunisia
Some people are just inherently good. There’s no motive behind it and nothing they’re expecting to get from it. They’re just that naturally good. It’s the difference between hearing that your old lady neighbor broke her hip and deciding that you should go over and help them, versus actually wanting to go over and help. Sinners like me don’t understand the people that just plain want to help others. I know that I should, and often do, but there’s usually that moment of “Crap. Now I’ve gotta go do that.” One of my mom’s best friends, Lise, is one of those genuinely and amazingly nice people— and I’m not just saying that because she donated money to Man Bites World. And it’s also not just because she cooks food for the homeless. It’s because she’s so completely and genuinely kind that she actually cooks really nice, high end meals meals for the homeless. When she’s on duty, which is every single month, the homeless around her eat better than the middle class. For example, a few months ago she cooked chicken Marbella from the Silver Palate cookbook. For the homeless. As Lise once told my mom, “I always serve them something that I would make if they were in my home for dinner.” And for the record, she’s probably a little uncomfortable with me writing about this— mom was friends with Lise for years before she even knew that any of this happened.
Mom and I pick Lise up from her house and head toward Moun of Tunis on Sunset Boulevard. Lise has been reading the Personal Food Project in Blog Form for a while now and is pretty excited about getting to join tonight. I don’t know a ton about the restaurant we’re going to, though it often draws comparisons to Dar Maghreb, the now closed Moroccan restaurant just down the street which also serves multi-course, eat-with-your-hands meals amid bright north African decorations. I for one am hoping the comparison isn’t too close, after Man Bites World had a not-so-great experience there just over two months ago. But after parking and heading inside, there is an immediate positive difference: the service. Seemingly the only person working at the front of the house, our Brazilian host/server/busboy/sommelier seats us, then recommends a very tasty Moroccan wine. We order the “Tunisian Feast”, choose our courses, then eat some tasty hummus and pita while I sit back and relax for the first time all day.
The first course is a dish called brik, which means that three enormous fried pastries arrive that are each the size of my forearm. All three are immensely crispy and there isn’t a square centimeter on any of them that isn’t golden brown. “These are a meal by themselves,” says mom as we all take bites, juggling the the steam with our tongues. Inside is a whole egg, which has been cooked in the brik itself, wrapped in mashed potatoes with capers. The egg is a little dominant and underseasoned, but adding the accompanying red chili sauce on top takes care of that. The next course is a plate with three different types of Tunisian salads, thin strips of lamb and a merguez sausage (lamb, in this case, with a heavy dose of assorted spices). We’re given hot, fresh bread, which is placed between two fingers and used to scoop up the food. The strips of lamb are really well spiced and have mom changing her tune on lamb. “I didn’t think I liked lamb, but this is really good! It’s like tri-tip.” The merguez, which can be one of the great sausages on Earth, is unfortunately a bit dry and uninteresting. Moving on to the salads, the real revelations come in the form of two different carrot dishes. One is dark, tender and cut into small cubes— marking itself as the star vegetable on the plate. But the other? After the first bite of these shredded carrots, there is a long moment of thought. It doesn’t taste like carrots. What is that? Suddenly, my memory is jolted back to elementary school as I quickly say, “Oh my God. They taste exactly like grape soda.” Lise immediately smiles and nods her head. “That’s it! It tastes like grape soda!” How did this happen? How is it possible? What caused this phenomenon? I have no idea.
Mom, it seems, wasn’t paying attention. When our entrées arrive, she says “Wait, there’s more?” to which Lise responds, “Well they said it was a Tunisian feast, didn’t they?” Our Brazilian server was nice enough to allow us to order a split between the two main entrées he prefers (and thankfully steering us away from the salmon). So we are now presented with three plates of food which would have been more than enough even without everything else. Cous cous with vegetables and boulettes (meatballs), lemon chicken and lamb with artichoke sauce. The lamb is fall-off-the-bone tender, and the artichokes are a nice touch, but the flavor on the lamb itself is just a little too gamey and only really works when it’s consumed with a piece of artichoke as well. The cous cous is actually quite tasty, with the meatballs even getting my Italian mother’s stamp of approval, making me want to get some marinara sauce and start throwing a party. But my favorite dish of the night goes to our oft criticized avian friend: the chicken. Overcooked even slightly, and it’s a boring, miserable piece of meat. But tonight, the chicken is crispy skinned, well seasoned, brightened with the citrus from the lemon, and most importantly, juicy and tender on the inside. A dry chicken is a disservice to the bird that has unwillingly given its life to us. So treat it right. Cook it well. And tonight, that happened.
After a sweet mint tea and very sweet honey dessert, we start driving the incredibly generous Lise, who of course refused to let anyone else pay for the meal, back home. On the way, I hear fun stories of her time as a nurse in her younger days, which even comes with a food-relevant twist. Lise, you see, worked in labor and delivery at Cedars-Sinai— and back then, she claimed (and still does) that kimchee is so strong that you can actually smell it on the Korean newborn babies. That’s right— she claims that the smell of kimchee transfers through childbirth. She told some doctors about this one day and they, not surprisingly, didn’t believe her. So she made a bet. And when the next Korean baby was born, cleaned up and taken on to the next phase, she had the doctors smell him. “Oh my God,” a doctor gasped. “It smells like kimchee!” Lise laughs as she finishes telling the story, then says, “So the doctors bought my lunch that day.” Now she, I must say, is a one-of-a-kind lady.
Moun of Tunis
7445 1/2 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Food Breakdown: 2 bottles of wine, feast for 3
Price: Unknown, with thanks, once again, to an amazing woman.
Distance From My House: 7.1 miles