harvard square oasis passes 40–a tribute to algiers coffee house

Algiers Coffee House | 40 Brattle Street | Cambridge, MA

If you are lucky, Emile Durzi, the owner of Algiers Coffee House, a Mediterranean café in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will open the door for you. He won’t say much, for he claims to be shy, but you’ll know who he is by the way his prayer cap and lion-colored eyes blend so well with his surroundings: the terracotta tile floor; the beaten-metal pitchers with their beak-like spouts; the old, gleaming copper and silver espresso machines; the hole in the ceiling over the entrance that showcases the second floor’s lovely wood ceiling, from which a censor hangs just above your head. If you are luckier still, you’ll be present when Durzi fills the censor with frankincense, lights it and starts it swinging on its 25-foot chain, setting the piney scent adrift as in the maze of a Moroccan souk. “To keep evil spirits away,” he might say.

Indeed, it would seem the frankincense is working: it’s no easy feat to keep a restaurant alive and thriving in high-rent Harvard Square, where eateries come and go, sometimes within months. But students, professors, tourists and lovers have been meeting steadily at the café’s unsteady octagonal tables over chicken kebab sandwiches and Arabic coffee—finely ground coffee flecked with cardamom and served with sugar in long-handled metal pitchers—for over 40 years.

In the beginning, Algiers was located in a small basement room of the same building it now occupies on bustling Brattle Street. There were hookahs then and plenty of smoke, a simple menu, and servers named Abdul, Leila and Lena (the yellowed staff phone list from that time still hangs in the back room), who both prepared and served the food. But these days steps lead up to Algiers’ front door, and a hookah stands idly by, a relic of a bygone era. A designated kitchen staff prepares the food. By moving Algiers into the new space (in 1990), Durzi, who has a degree in electrical engineering, was able to expand and design a café like no other.

The cafe’s most striking feature is the lofted pine ceiling of the second floor—the floor Durzi added in his renovation—and the hole in the floor beneath it. The intended effect is of a minaret, and the series of squares and octagons that make up the hole, as well as the arrangement of the iron supports for the railing around it, is true to the tenets of Islamic architecture. Then there are the many smaller touches: copper counter tops, hanging lamps of stained glass, walls covered by wooden lattice screens or inlaid with drawings and mirrors. And behind where the 70-year-old Durzi, who moves with difficulty due to advanced Parkinson’s disease, sits reading or writing at the bar nearly every day, hangs a portrait of him as a younger man, the one who opened Algiers a lifetime ago.

So how does an electrical engineer come to open a cafe? Durzi is originally from Palestine, and his family fled for Egypt when he was six. He has fond memories of being a child in Cairo, sent out early in the morning to buy bread from the baker down the street. He is an accomplished cook who occasionally disappears into Algiers’ kitchen to sauté a snack of water-soaked chick peas (with water and salt, for just the right amount of time) and who will share with a server a tea he’s brewed from orchid root. Particularly fond of sweets, he’s been known to raid chocolate left unguarded by wait-staff. But his reasons for opening a café were more practical than romantic. His older brother had arrived in the US before he did and told him that businesses here operate on advertising and credit. Durzi wanted nothing to do with either (to this day Algiers does not advertise; nor, by the way, does it have a cash register), and he eventually thought that running a café might suit him. “And,” he said, “I wanted to have fun.”

As with any successful restaurant, there is the hard work of the manager. Nadir Bendjenni, dark-haired and with a soccer player’s reflexes, began working for Durzi 15 years ago in his East Cambridge factory that supplied the merguez (lamb sausage) and other items for Algiers and a handful of local restaurants. After a year at the factory, Bendjenni, who is actually from Algiers and who grew up helping his father run various businesses, became the café’s manager. Durzi closed the factory in 1999, and since then the kitchen staff prepares everything from the yogurt and hand-cut french fries to the falafel and merguez, which every Tuesday is mixed by hand and funneled into lamb-intestine casing.

It was Bendjenni who introduced the café’s signature dessert, a moist Arabic semolina cake called besbousa, which Bendjenni said means “kiss.” According to him, many Muslims break the daily fast during Ramadan with besbousa because it provides energy. “It is a food backup,” he said in his rapid, accented English. Once or twice a week Bendjenni spreads a mixture of egg, lemon peel, yogurt and semolina into a shallow pan, sprinkles it with paprika and pops it in the oven, while a honey sauce boils on the stove. When the cake has cooled, Bendjenni cuts it into squares, adds rose water to the sauce and pours it over the cake, and voila!—a delightful juxtaposition of slightly coarse texture and delicate sweetness.

In Algeria an emphasis is placed on fresh food, and so too it is at Algiers. Every morning local bakeries deliver the chocolate croissants and Arabic bread, and the servers squeeze oranges for juice. The peasant salad, a crisp mix of cabbage, pepper, onion, tomato and cucumber tossed with feta vinaigrette, is chopped to order. Algiers’ famous red lentil soup, served with lemon, a dash of paprika and Arabic bread, is ready every day at 11 a.m. as it takes nearly three hours for the soup to reach its full flavor and for the lentils to shed their red casings and turn green.

It’s dinnertime and I’ve ordered the eggplant salad and hummus ajami with lamb. I’m upstairs, where the walls are painted red, light blue and pale yellow and are hung with inscriptions of Arabic calligraphy and old maps of countries whose shores touch the Mediterranean. The ceiling is slanted at both ends of the rectangular room, and a few pillars provide hidden seats for the handing off of dossiers, or for simply tucking away with a good book. To sit here in the morning, when the place is still and the “minaret” filled with Bach and sunlight, is to experience an oasis, somehow simultaneously calming and soul stirring.

But on this busy Thursday night, Algiers is not a peaceful oasis. The music has just switched from what sounded like a muezzin’s haunting call to prayer to the strains of Vivaldi. (Durzi is passionate about classical music, and a portrait of a broody Beethoven hangs downstairs.) To my right, a couple discusses an organic farm in Rwanda; on my left, two men speak Arabic across one of the house backgammon boards. From my seat against the wall, lit by a lamp with a shade of dangling beads, I watch as new arrivals choose their tables, some venturing outside to see if there is space on the small, cozy deck, arguably one of the most intimate spots for outdoor dining in the Boston area. Loose-leaf tea is a popular order, each pot accompanied by a strainer. And one of the great things about Algiers is that you can sit with that pot of tea for as long as you like—nothing but your own schedule will hurry you here.

Dinner has arrived. The eggplant salad is beautiful. I love how the sprinkling of white feta looks against the dark greens and shiny black edges of the eggplant slices. And then there is the hummus ajami. Its spicy-sweet sauce is made to order: red and green peppers join tomato juice, curry and bay leaves in the sauté pan and are served over chunks of grilled Halal lamb and hummus. Delicious. (When I asked Durzi about the word ajami, he said it means “foreigner,” with a friendly connotation.)

I’ve polished off my salad and mopped up with bread all traces of saucy hummus, and now it’s time for dessert. The night is still young, and I may just stay until closing, for Algiers is a place to linger in, long after one’s besbousa and mint tea are gone.

Congratulations, Mr. Durzi.

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One Response to harvard square oasis passes 40–a tribute to algiers coffee house

  1. Emile Durzi says:

    This is Emile Durzi the owner of Algiers Coffee House which you correctly wrote about. I thank you about the correct description and details of the Coffee House. Thank you for that!

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