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Homestyle Moroccan at Cafe Paprika in Norwood

IN THE KITCHEN Cafe PaprikaIt doesn’t take a chemist to be a great cook, but it doesn’t hurt either. Or so we have to believe after learning that Café Paprika’s owner left that profession for something he loved– the cuisine of his native Morrocco. “You have to find your calling,” said Lahssen Abaichi, who worked in several Boston-area kitchens after leaving his job as a biochemist and opening Paprika in 2007. “Touching people through food is my joy.” Having grown up in his mother’s kitchen and the restaurants of Marrakesh and Rabat,  Abaichi’s command of the Moroccan flavor palette produces dishes that are excitingly new while being comfortingly tasty. The other ace in his winning hand is his traditional Moroccan hospitality. With help in the kitchen, he runs the front of the house – serving customers like guests in his home. THE LOCALE The small, 20-seat downtown storefront is a luncheonette-like space painted a festive orange with geometric Moorish designs. Booths and tables surround a central counter filled with the tools of the trade: a cash register, glass jars of preserved lemons and loose tea, metal teapots, and pointy earthenware tagines. ON THE MENU The all-day menu is relatively big, with salads, soups, unique sandwiches, and more, but the tagines are what interest us. “What do you feel like?” asks our waiter, who turns out to be Abaichi. “Something on the sweet side? The savory side? Garlicky? Smokey? Lemony?” The bakoula appetizer ($8.25)– a classic Moroccan spinach dish – is so good with hints of this and that (what is it?) that it holds its own with my dining partner who doesn’t normally go crazy over vegetables.  Pair it with Paprika’s best selling item — chicken wings ($8.25), which are out of this world: small, charred, garlicky, lemony, crispy, moist, and spicy. A first bite of the mrouzia almond lamb ($15.95) tagine evokes French toast but is more: warming, savory, sweet, smoky. We like the meat of the actual bone-in lamb shank less than the sum of the rest of the dish. Served over gorgeously fluffy couscous, studded with almonds, raisons, apricots and more, the dish is shot through with Paprika’s custom version of the classic Moroccan ras al harnot spice mix. Abaichi’s food launches lively guessing games. “What’s that taste, what is that taste?,” we say throughout the meal. Marinated fish tagine ($13.50) is a white fish – grouper on one night — served over either couscous or rice. The dish has bits of Abaichi’s wonderfully potent, homemade preserved lemons (he makes barrelfuls), and a traditional spice mix known as chermoula. It is light and bright and lovely. On a second visit, two chicken-on-the-bone dishes are equally good. Zitoune chicken tagine ($13.25) is a stewy dish with roasted potatoes, red olives, and onions, flavored with ginger and saffron. A rectangle of light, focaccia-like house-made bread is perfect for scooping up mouthfuls.  And the delicious, nicely grilled Moorish chicken ($12.95) is a great choice for less adventurous eaters – or even adventurous ones. The restaurant’s desserts aren’t made in-house and, being picky about confections, we don’t find the lemon cake worth the sugar intake it costs us, although others do — from the raves we hear. “Not every dish is for everyone,” said Abaichi. “But if you keep your mind open, and let me serve you, no one should leave sad – unless they couldn’t get a seat.” Café Paprika, 734 Washington St., Norwood, 781-44o-0060, Joan Wilder can be reached at