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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

Casablanca Takes It to the Next Level

New floor and balcony, same great qualities

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Casablanca’s story continues to evolve. Jesse Musa opened the restaurant in the late ’80s at a modest location on Mitchell Street. It later moved to a larger place on Oakland Avenue, only to return to the original spot. Casablanca then was shuttered for a few years, before reopening in 2005 at its current site on Brady Street.

Brady Street has proven to be just the right spot. Casablanca was an instant hit.

The Middle Eastern favorite has been a construction site for the last few months, as it was expanded to include a second floor with a balcony. The lower level has not changed much, except for the new stairway. The bar/lounge and dining room remain the same. The upper level, featuring an additional bar, is mainly open on weekends. It is also available for private parties. The setting is similar to the first level, with warm, dark tones and many windows.

Casablanca’s menu has an emphasis on Middle Eastern fare, although it also includes North African couscous and a Moroccan shrimp kabob.

Adas majrous ($3.95) leads off the starter courses. It is an adeptly prepared yellow lentil soup scented with cumin—a prime example of how flavorful vegetarian food can be. Also start with stuffed grape leaves ($6.95), which are served in a vegetarian version or filled with rice and beef. These also are perfectly seasoned. In fact, there is not a better stuffed grape leaf in the Milwaukee area. The remaining appetizers belong to vegetarians, with falafel ($5.95), baba ghannoj ($5.95) and hummus ($5.95) among them. Consider the Casablanca combination ($12.95), an entrée of assorted vegetarian items. All of the options are well-prepared Middle Eastern standards.

Meat eaters will also feel at home here. Lamb kifta kabob ($13.95), ground meat with parsley, onion and spices, is served over basmati rice and delivers a fine flavor. But my favorite item is the chicken sumac ($12.95), a half chicken with the bones in. It is topped with onions with a purple hue, thanks to sumac, a tart spice that is widely used in the Middle East. It is good with all meats.

Sumac also appears in the lamb shawarma ($13.95), which is slow-cooked on a rotisserie. This is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Greek gyros, though this option is vastly superior to the gyros found in this country. It is served in small pieces and topped with tomato and onion.

In addition to the Casablanca combination, vegetarians will find an entrée-sized portion of grape leaves and vegetable couscous. This is a heaping serving of couscous with zucchini, eggplant, carrots, onions and chickpeas, topped with a vibrant tomato sauce.

Lunch offers a buffet that is entirely vegetarian and includes items not found on the regular menu (though, thankfully, it always includes the yellow lentil soup). It makes an excellent introduction to Casablanca’s menu.

For the full experience, stop in on a Friday night, when there are two performances of belly dancing. Arrive early for a good table.

Casablanca is now bigger in size, but it retains the qualities that have made it Milwaukee’s most popular Middle Eastern restaurant.

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