Curious about Tunisian food? Couscous will win you over

Of the things that surprise my out-of-town friends the most about Atlanta, particularly those from the North, is the wealth of international cuisine available in the capital of the South.

There are countless destinations for excellent examples of banh mi, pho, and Korean barbecue. Our Hispanic communities turn out fantastic taquerias along Buford Highway, and one could go cross-eyed deciding which Szechuan hot pot or which pork bun is the best. However, there is almost nowhere for you to get an authentic taste of Tunisian food.

That is, until now.

Executive chef Khaled Chebbi — whose most recent turns in the kitchen included stints at decidedly non-Tunisian restaurants like Century House Tavern or Carpe Diem — teamed up with partners Lotfi Chabaane and Haykel Arfaoui to open Couscous near Piedmont Park.

Chebbi and company opened their new venture in May, taking over the space formerly occupied by the ill-fated Amuse on Dutch Valley Road. The space, which sits at the bottom of a condo building at the end of the short side road, isn’t the easiest to spot, even if you know where you are going. But once you arrive, you find a vibrant room awash with bright colors like the turquoise ceiling, and a row of tall windows overlooking the surprisingly private-feeling garden patio.

Among the surprises I find here, the cocktail and beer selection is perhaps the most unexpected. Hop-heads will enjoy a small but dense menu that features bottles like Bell’s Oberon ($5) or Two-hearted Ale ($6). And the Rosemary Runner ($8), a simple mix of gin, fresh lemon juice, and rosemary-infused simple syrup, proves to be a wonderfully refreshing summertime drink.

For those not familiar with the region or the cuisine, Tunisian food is a unique blend of Northern African and Mediterranean cooking, and elements from the many civilizations that have laid claim to the region over the past 8,000 years, including Roman, Turkish, French and Arab cuisine. The staff at Couscous seems to understand that many of their diners may be unfamiliar, and I find all of them to be most helpful in navigating the menu of what are likely foreign dishes to most Atlantans.

Tunisian food features a spicier flavor profile than most African cuisine, particularly in the often-used harissa sauce, a blend of red chili peppers such as the piri piri. Couscous is the Tunisian national dish, and given that it is their namesake, Chebbi’s renditions do not disappoint. I often find couscous to be bland, yet my heaping bowl of pan-roasted chicken couscous ($17) is anything but. A flavorful feast of stewed meat and vegetables, liberally spiced with harissa sauce, the large portion proves to be more than many will eat in a single sitting.

That bright orange sauce appears frequently across Chebbi’s menu, which mostly comprises old family recipes that he grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother. Though I don’t realize it at the time, the harissa gives the deliciously rich and mildly spicy broth in the Mussels La Goulette ($9) its eye-catching orange hue. All color aside, I make fast work of the fresh shellfish and, with the assistance of some extra bread and a large soupspoon, I polish off every last drop of broth.

The harissa beautifully complements the deceptively simple kefteji ($9), a hearty mix of vegetables served as a dip with pita bread and a staple of the traditional Tunisian diet. This finely chopped blend of butternut squash, potatoes, tomatoes and onions comes blended with a heady mix of spices, with strong notes of cumin. Especially for a first-timer, this dish should be required eating and is great to split with the table as an appetizer. The kefteji is the only dish that I ordered on each of my three visits, and considering my task is to try as much of the menu as possible, that is saying something.

Not everything on the menu has the signature kick of the harissa sauce, and not everything will push the uninitiated or less adventurous outside of their comfort zone. The Barbary brined pork confit ($16), a mass of tender, slow-cooked pork atop a cauliflower puree and topped with a brandied grape sauce, combines the sweetness of the sauce with the rich, savory pork nicely. The powerful, aromatic peppercorn sauce glazed over the hanger steak ($17) adds intense flavor to what could have been a boring dish. And any Southerner should enjoy the sauteed chicken livers ($7), though the mix of caramelized onions, cumin, and tomato coulis may not be just how your grandmother made it.

Across the board, I’m consistently surprised at how enjoyable I find each dish I try at Couscous. Almost as surprising is how strong of a brunch offering Chebbi serves each Sunday. In a slight departure from the traditional recipe, the Tunisian Merguez Benedict ($12) comes as a bowl of spiced lamb sausage atop of blend of stewed vegetables, topped with a pair of wickedly runny poached eggs. Blend those yolks in with the potatoes, tomatoes and sausage, and you have a hearty and addictive bowl of belly-comforting deliciousness.

Couscous is both a pleasant surprise as well as a significant addition to the landscape of ethnic cuisines that Atlanta continues to foster. Though many of you may not have much experience with Tunisian food, I assure you that a meal at Couscous is very likely to convert you. If you are in the mood for something new, it is definitely worth the trip.

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