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Poke your head into Tissa's Cafe at the historic James Pharmacy building in Old Saybrook, and the aromas emanating from it conjure images of a bustling marketplace in a warm, warm place. It gets better when you see the Moroccan foods and products stocked within.
Never mind that the circa-1790 pharmacy building is a hot spot of American history. (Among its claims to fame is a visit by Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette; it served as the home and workplace of Anna Louise James, Connecticut's first black female pharmacist; and Harlem Renaissance writer Ann Petry was born there. Naturally, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.)
Luckily, the best of all of the aforementioned worlds collide at Tissa's Le Souk du Maroc and the James Soda Fountain (added in 1896). The soda fountain does a tidy ice cream business, and foodies who love fresh, fragrant fare regret not saving enough belly room for ice cream.
We'll concentrate on the cafe this time around. (The ice cream shop is lovely; choose from 24 flavors of ice cream, including the cinnamon/clove-y Morroccan Delight, frozen yogurt, sorbet and gelato.)
Your first order of business is to check the specials, because if you don't, you might miss out on something as soul-satisfying as the Lemon Chicken Tagine - a dish so beautiful to behold, a group of ice cream customers stopped me mid-feast to ask what it was. They changed their dinner plans immediately and grabbed one of three cafe tables to get their own huge plate of this wonderful dish.
I might've gasped when I pulled off the tagine lid and saw its bounty: tender, perfectly lemon-ed chicken in a pool of Israeli couscous and vegetables, seasoned with, to make some guesses, cumin, maybe saffron, maybe tarragon. It doesn't matter, because it's so delicious, you get distracted as you wish for more. My husband and I finished every last couscous pearl.
I'm getting ahead of myself: the husband made the brilliant inquiry as to whether we might get some hummus to nosh on as an appetizer (not on the menu). Not a problem: the chef herself brought out a plate of whole wheat pita and one of the best dishes of hummus I've ever eaten. The texture was spot on; the garlic was allowed to shine through and do its business, and the subtle lemon kept thing genteel. We were sad to run out of pita and resorted to forked bits of the remaining hummus.
As for the lamb gyro we sampled, it was exquisite. I'm finicky about lamb, but there was nothing to fret about this time. It was tender, expertly spiced, and married beautifully with the light and tangy yogurt, tomatoes and lettuce within.
On a return trip we grabbed wraps for take-out, and they held up well after 30 minutes of erranding. My Chermoula Chicken Wrap was packed so full of flavor and peppers, onions and spinach, I had leftovers. Wikipedia says chermoula is "a mixture of herbs, oil, lemon juice, pickled lemons, garlic, cumin, and salt. It may also include onion, fresh coriander, ground chili peppers, black pepper, or saffron." My wrap seemed more of the saffron-y sort, and while the woman who took my order advised me of the wrap's spiciness, fear not, because I can't say it packed much heat.
The Lamb Mrouzia Wrap, however, did offer a little kick thanks to its raisin-y, spicy-sweet mrouzia sauce. This wrap features lamb sausage amid bell peppers, spinach and goat cheese, and it's a savory sensation. We elected that wrap the winner of the two, but that's a tough contest; the Chermoula Wrap remains tasty indeed.
For the less spice-loving diner, Tissa's offers a selection of more traditional sandwiches, like the Tomato and Mozzarella Sandwich and the Italian Roast Beef Sandwich. These offerings might prove a nice gateway to future culinary excursions to Tissa's, where the marketplace of gifts, foods and cooking supplies (including spices and tagines) from Mediterranean, Morocco and the Middle East offers its own education in this colorful cuisine.
Or just pop in for an ice cream soda and chat with the friendly staff who can tell you anything you want to know about the cafe's offerings. If you squint hard enough, the American Revolution will fade to a hot hazy souk in no time, but at Tissa's your ice cream won't melt.
2 Pennywise Lane, Old Saybrook
Cuisine: North African and Mediterranean-inspired wraps and sandwiches; ice cream shop on premises
Atmosphere: Cozy and inviting, with lots of historical details. A few cafe tables provide some eat-in space.
Service: Cheerful and quick
Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard and Discover
Handicapped access: Single entrance up stone steps could prove tricky. Interior is close quarters.