Deft Execution of Classic Dishes Makes Revamped Casablanca a Solid Value

Bourek, crispy rolls of crackly dough filled with beef or vegetables. Photo credit: Geoffrey Ragatz

Anti-aging, anti-inflammatory nutrition seems a permanent addition to our dietary worries. More plants. More meat. Less meat. No meat. Superfoods. Processed sugar is evil. Agave syrup is allowed.

Now might be the golden age for nutritionists, but I’m so thrilled I didn’t choose that career. But great news: Thanks to Casablanca the Restaurant, I have discovered a painless path to anti-aging nourishment. Just feast on the panoply of cuisines so ancient that every bite makes you feel young(ish).

Casablanca showcases dishes born centuries ago in far-flung regions that include Mahgreb (think Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) and some nods to Andalusian Spain and coastal France and Italy. The names and alliances shift over time, but the cuisine is a fusion of what those cultures have cooked for eons. Take bourek for example—delectable flaky rolls with diced meat or vegetable filling, carefully wrapped in see-through pastry before being fried to shattery golden goodness. It’s a craveable appetizer that begs to be shared.

Kemiya, appetizer platter of hummus, dolmakadi, marinated olives, bourek, and merguez lamb sausages spiced with paprika, garlic, and cumin. Photo credit: Geoffrey Ragatz

 

Costa Mesans will recognize Casablanca as what was Marrakesh for decades. But new owner Abder Amokrane refreshed the tired room. Gone are the droopy clichéd tents that obscured views, and a fresh paint job now brightens the space, drawing eyes up and around this sprawling dinner house. Sure, the crumbly parking lot needs repaving, but it’s free and roomy. A walk past a gurgling fountain in the lobby and greetings from a handsome man in a white dinner jacket lend to the feeling of another place, time, or movie set. Though low-slung booth seating that hugs spacious round tables can be cozy, even romantic for nights when it’s just the two of you, this venue is quite literally made for groups. Whether raised, sunken, or loungy, the seating options accommodate almost every demand. I have seen everything here: a loner in flip-flops shoveling lamb couscous; a couple sharing a bottle of rosé over endless appetizers; and a festive birthday party of two dozen friends being entertained by the finest belly dancer I have witnessed.

The menu is compact, but nothing seems wanting. This cuisine is fundamentally friendly to vegetarians and meat lovers, so unless you’re after a fat steak and lobster tail, you’re covered here. As the months get chillier, do try harrira, the house soup. Like all treasured comfort food, the recipe for harrira has many variations, but at its heart, the chickpea soup has a tomato base, hints of fresh black pepper, and lots of fresh cilantro. It’s a soothing soup and understandably a popular dish for breaking fasts during Ramadan. Here, it’s made without meat. Skip the variable Caprese salad (heirloom tomatoes are so inconsistent) and head straight for the more intriguing house salad featuring eggplant “caviar,” marinated carrots, and cucumbers. I prefer the Provençale vinaigrette, but you can choose another from the scratch dressings.

Shareable appetizers are a big deal here, so why not order kemiya, basically a platter of greatest hits from Berber, Andalusian, Ottoman, Arabic, and French cultures. This is where you will find the practically perfect hummus, pitted olives slick with sherry, and feisty little merguez sausages among other goodies that feed three or four. Do not miss the classic bastilla (or pastilla in Spain), a shredded chicken (squab in the olden days) pastry with rich spices, eggs, and toasted almonds encased in many layers of flaky phyllo dough before baking and dusting with powdered sugar. It’s savory and sweet and lovely.

A seven-vegetable couscous with flame-grilled chicken, beef brochettes and merguez sausage. Photo credit: Geoffrey Ragatz

Entrees include three tagines, slowly braised mixtures starring meats. Omit the overly mild lemon chicken version and instead enjoy the honey lamb tagine, bursting with aromatic ras el hanout spices, saffron, honey, and caramelized onions. Ras el hanout is a premium spice blend that varies from kitchen to kitchen, region to region, and century to century. And because I will never say no to proper couscous, an order of the seven-vegetable couscous is a must.

Service leans to super gracious, and the staff is more than patient with questions. I attribute the sporadic waits to a lean staff working a big room. But when someone offers you mint tea, say yes and you’ll get the full performance. Pouring from an imposing silver pot held high above the table cools the tea and reveals its best flavors. Odds also favor you catching a riveting (but family-friendly) show by the slinky belly dancer. She appeared every time I visited for dinner. If in doubt, call to confirm, and bring cash for that well-deserved tip.

Like its predecessor, Casablanca is a great choice for a larger gathering. The setting is versatile, the staff is accommodating, and the prices are more than fair. But when it’s dinner for two, you can’t beat the five-course meal (with choices) for $36 per person. The menu titles it Casablanca’s Traditional Hospitality, but to my thinking, it’s a delicious tour of the eons and the key to my new anti-aging diet. I mean, really, how can you feel aged while eating a dish that was invented in the seventh century?

★★1/2
1976 Newport Blvd.
Costa Mesa
949-423-7990

5 BEST DISHES
➜ House salad
➜ Bastilla
➜ Kemiya platter
➜ Honey lamb tagine
➜ Vegetable couscous

PRICE RANGE: Dinner, $6 to $56

FYI: The staff speaks English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch.

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