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Venue Review: Casablanca Cafe

Making Moroccan headway
Casablanca Cafe
By "Helen Schwab"
The Charlotte Observer

9609 N. Tryon St., Charlotte

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Moroccan food, an extraordinary cuisine, hasn't quite hit the star track yet in America.

So, many places offer a melange of Middle Eastern and/or Mediterranean fare to bolster their menus and keep themselves in business. Moroccan dishes, or dishes done with Moroccan seasoning, pop up occasionally on Charlotte menus, but Casablanca Café in the University area immediately zooms to the head of the class with specials of tagines and couscous, and always-on-the-menu bastillas, harira soup and the layered bread called rghaif.

Consider this a mild – very mild – introduction to the fare.

Don't expect a Casablanca setting, nor the voluptuousness of flavor fans of Moroccan food crave. Do expect hospitality from owner Sam Roussi, and do expect Morocco's marvelous textures.

The flavors are something of a pulled punch: Tagines, stew-like combinations of meats noted for vibrant bursts of olive or sweet fruit, are subdued here, and served with French fries; you're offered utensils or you can eat it with the accompanying pita. Chicken, the Tuesday special, is made with lemon, potato and mild green olives; lamb, served Thursdays, is cooked with peas and carrots.

Couscous is served on Fridays, and done with lamb, chicken or vegetables only. Squashes, cabbage, chickpeas and large carrots rest beside an enormous mound of the delicate grain and a chicken thigh and leg: This is easily two meals, for $8.99.

Bastillas are 6 inches across, layers of phyllo wrapped around shredded chicken with bits of onion and almonds, doused with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Served steaming hot, it's delicious. There's also a version using fish and shrimp.

Other appetizers are a fine version of hummus, bright with lemon and garlic; nicely fried falafel; smoky baba ghanouj; and a combo platter of those three plus lemony, parsley-fresh tabbouleh and pita. Harira, a homey comfort of a tomato-based soup dotted with lentils and chickpeas, arrives hot and delicious.

Chunks of chicken and beef, and the ground-beef meatballs called kafta can be had as kabobs or in sandwiches on hoagie rolls. There's also a falafel on pita sandwich, and gyros of chicken or beef in pita. Other nightly specials include paella on Saturday and Sunday nights, done with vegetables or seafood.

If you go on a Wednesday, consider the nice fish plate: a mild whitefish (varying, depending on what's available) done with charmoula (a garlicky, herb-based marinade) and fried when we tried it, though the menu says baked. We got two whole fish the size of my hand for $8.99, with vegetables and rice.

Also, don't miss rghaif, a tender yeast bread of layers, served here for dessert as it's sometimes served for breakfast: drizzled with honey. With a glass of strong mint tea (pour that sugar in), it's a fine ending to this introduction to Moroccan fare.

Located in a strip mall, the place has plain tables, tired walls, and a counter at which you order. But on our visits, we ran into one young man who says he comes here daily, because it reminds him of home; and another man who apologized for being late to pick up his takeout order, but he'd been in a car accident. That's loyalty.

Owner Roussi says he is trying to build support, and serves now “like fast food, Moroccan-American.” He says in his three months in business, he's tripled the amount of lamb he buys, and the number of nightly specials he prepares. “My hope is that I see clients coming in, (enough) to do a big restaurant, with Moroccan decoration and everything.”

My hope, too.

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June 17, 2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab

Casablanca Café serves up an easy, albeit subdued, way to get familiar with unique cuisine.

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