Here is the deal: I will reveal to you a hidden gem in Norwood. In exchange, when the restaurant subsequently becomes crowded, you will give up your table to me if there isn’t another available.
By continuing to read this article, you consent to the terms above.
Okay. So, the chef-owner of Café Paprika is Lahssen Abaichi. The man has a gift with lemon and spices. He cooks for you like he would a guest in his home.
Abaichi hasn’t advertised since opening Paprika in Norwood Center seven years ago. He builds his clientele through word-of-mouth and keeps them coming back with exceptional food and hospitality. Somehow, it works; even though most people I speak to don’t know about this diamond in the rough, everyone who does is a regular.
You’ll notice this “everyone is a regular” phenomenon during your first visit. Abaichi greets an elderly woman in French. “Ça va?” “Oui, ça va bien.” When he sees a man walking in through the door, he tells the man that the soup is ready. When I sit down, he asks if I’ll be getting the bruschetta as usual.
And as soon as you taste the food, you’ll become a regular, too.
Another thing you will notice is the thought that Abaichi puts into his food. Ask about any dish and he'll tell you more than the ingredients; he'll share why he makes it the way he does. Everything is deliberate.
For instance, my beloved Mrouzia almond chicken is a Moroccan dish, but he has tweaked it to fit his American clientele. Back home, Abaichi says, the couscous would be its own course later in the meal. But in America, he saw that people like to have a starch with their meat.
He tweaked. I ate. And the seeds of addiction were planted at Café Paprika.
Here is a sampling of some of my other favorite items to get your taste buds going.
Paprika’s Mediterranean Grilled Wings
Despite his roots, Abaichi made a conscious choice to devote about 5 percent of the menu to dishes that were not traditionally Moorish, Andalous or Mediterranean. He reasons that in a group of five diners or more, somebody at the table doesn’t want Moroccan food for dinner tonight, and he doesn’t want to lose the business of the entire group because one person wants to stick with the American comfort food classics.
“What you do is, you take those comfort dishes and make them a different way,” says Abaichi. Why? “Because they recognize wings, but they get something they’ve never tasted before. Therefore, they become addicted.”
The strategy works. The ethereal blend of olive oil, chopped garlic and lemon is so superior to the standard barbecue sauce that all other wings fade to a distant memory.
Bruschetta is a fun dish to order at a new restaurant because each chef prepares it a little differently. In addition to traditional tomatoes, Abaichi adds roasted red peppers. He drizzles the balsamic vinegar on the bread before adding the vegetables to moisten the bread with a sweet tang.
Baked haddock with breadcrumbs is one of my favorite comfort foods, though I tend not to order it in restaurants because I make it so frequently at home. However, I make an exception for Café Paprika. I thought I had the recipe down, but Abaichi takes it to the next level.
I honestly don’t know what his secret is. The lemon flavor just sings a little louder, the breadcrumbs are just a little crispier and the potatoes are a perfect medley of white-and-fluffy and crispy brown.
Rustic Eggplant Sandwich
This is one of my favorite sandwiches ever. It has homemade mint pesto, sweet peppers and tomatoes, crispy fried eggplant, and creamy mozzarella. We're talking umami and herbs, with a little kick from the vinegar in the honey slaw. That’s all I need from a sandwich, or a meal, or my life, really.
Chicken a la Paprika
Even in simple dishes like this Abaichi manages to show off: just juicy chicken and the bright flavors of tomato and pepper, mashed into potatoes and rice. He doesn’t even need to get fancy. It’s still going to be the best thing you’ll eat this week.
M’hancha, Otherwise Known as the “Cigar”
End your meal with a cigar. No, not that kind of cigar—the dessert kind! The dessert’s official name, m’hancha, comes from the Arabic word for snake, but Abaichi also calls it a cigar. It is sweet, it is nutty, it is floral. It is the perfect end to what is always a perfect meal.
I’m relatively well-versed in the Boston food scene, and I visited Café Paprika more than any other restaurant this year. The food, hospitality and price points are just unmatched. Everything on the menu is under $20.
This article includes only a small sampling of some of my favorite items on the menu, but I can say without exaggeration that everything I have tasted at Café Paprika across 50-plus visits has been fantastic. You can’t go wrong. You must go often.
734 Washington St., Norwood, 781-440-0060, paprika-online.webs.com