For Montclair Local

It’s been an odd and challenging year since my last birthday, and I’m prepared for what shall be another Very Merry Unbirthday this month. I was named Robin for my first day of spring arrival, the child of extremely literal parents. 

Since I can’t be with all the ones I love, I’m going to make my own joy with a few things on my wish list.  As an added plus, I won’t be aging again this year. I didn’t last year, and will continue with that mind-set until the pandemic is over. Frankly, at this point, I don’t even know my true age.

I want to try a new type of cuisine, something delicious, well-spiced and more exotic than the usual fare found in Montclair, and Taste of Morocco on Valley Road opened on Jan. 23, 2021, for me and you to savor. Manal and Edman Dibra bring a little bit of their native Morocco to town, with a focus on fresh-ingredients dishes made in small batches and many spices added to their northwestern African cuisine.

Manal is the chef, having learned how to cook from her grandma at age 12. She was taught to use turmeric, ginger, cilantro, sumac and cumin to create healthy, fresh food. She never uses dried spices, adding: “The quality of the food was not there in other places, and I am passionate about cooking. Our dishes are not heavy, but fresh, healthy and different. I don’t make any fried foods, and marinate some ingredients in yogurt. We’re not fancy, and have something for everyone.” 

Extra-virgin olive oil takes the place of butter in all dishes, and Manal prepares small batches each morning to make sure she has enough for orders. Nothing is ever saved for another day. The menu appeals to this vegetarian, as I crave food prepared with lots of spices, but Taste of Morocco also features lamb tagine and chicken dishes, too. Creamy mushroom soup warms the belly and fills the soul.

Since some customers confuse North African with Middle Eastern food, Manal also added hummus and shawarma to the menu, to pair with the Arabic salad, made with tomatoes, radish, chickpeas, turnip, pumpkin and mint. I’m carbing up with couscous, and leaving room for pastries and cookies baked by Manal’s mother.

In a family of chefs, I thought that co-owner Edman might cook some of his favorite dishes. He prefers staying behind the scenes, cleaning, taking inventory and paying the bills. When I asked him which dishes he prepares, he said, “I make a mean bowl of cereal, and go to a restaurant for steak every now and then. I leave the cooking to Manal.”  I will, too, Edman.

Robin Woods, right, checks out some of the goods at The General Store at Cornerstone Montclair with owner and founder Wendy Lacey.
Robin Woods, right, checks out some of the goods at The General Store at Cornerstone Montclair with owner and founder Wendy Lacey.

Well-fed, I’m ready to explore The General Store at Cornerstone Montclair and find out more about the business and the organization. Cornerstone Montclair was founded by owner Wendy Lacey in October 2017 in a restored 3,000-square-foot building on Bellevue Avenue. She wants to provide opportunities for meaningful work for people of all abilities. The parent of 15-year-old Evelyn, who has Down syndrome, Wendy helps to bring a sense of inclusion to town, dealing with educational issues, parenting skills, speech therapy and more. Wendy said, “I want Evelyn to feel welcome and contribute to the community. Cornerstone finds ways for kids with challenges to fit in and participate in meaningful ways.”

The General Store is decorated in retro style, carries a bit of everything and is the mission come to life, appealing to our diverse community. Wendy employs many Montclair High School students and features goods from local artists and small entrepreneurs from far and wide.

She doesn’t believe in having people volunteer without pay, and the business is self-sustaining from store sales and rent paid by tenant partners. It’s a role model for other businesses.

“The store is doing very well, thanks to the Montclair community and the Shop Local initiative. COVID has had an impact on how it’s run, and no employees overlap on shifts. Everyone learns from each other, and makes good friends through social engagement,” Wendy said.

What will I choose for my birthday? I’ll make a stop at the retro-style refrigerator, dubbed The Big Chill, and pick up some ice cream. It’s a glorious blue appliance, and I wonder if Wendy would sell it to me.

Jars filled with what’s called penny candy are sold by the pound, and there’s also wrapped candy, chips, crackers and popcorn. Once I run out of room to eat anything else, I can choose from jewelry, books and housewares. 

With many gift occasions on my calendar and Easter coming up on April 4, handmade soap, toys and games will come in handy, too. Sensory toys and puzzles are in stock, with pet products for your little furries. Novelty items and mugs will find a place in your home, and I won’t forget to pick up some stationery to send thank-you notes for all the gifts I hope to receive. 

It’s nostalgia at its best, and a fun place to visit. Shop in person or online, and support people of all abilities and enable community engagement and a strong sense of connection.

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Robin Woods is a local girl-about town, writing about activities, stores, restaurants and interesting people that catch her eye. She’s written memoirs and music and fashion columns for various New York City newspapers, and received the Shirley Chisholm Award for Journalism in 2015. She won the 2019 Director’s Award in the Essex County Legacies Essay Contest, along with first place awards in 2017 and 2018.