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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009

Warmth and Hospitality

Casablanca’s Middle Eastern flavor

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Casablanca provides a perfect example of a restaurant settling on the right location.

Chef/owner Jesse Musa first opened Casablanca at Mitchell Street more than 20 years ago. He then relocated to Oakland Avenue, only to return to Mitchell Street a few years later. In 2001 the restaurant closed its doors, but in 2005 Musa reopened at the current Brady Street location with the help of his sons. This time success was in the air.

Casablanca’s front room, which is the designated smoking section, features a comfortable bar, a few tables and a shelf that holds a number of hookahs. The dining room offers dark wood tables, a small stage and paintings of desert scenes from the Middle East—a pleasant setting in which to enjoy a casual meal. Large glass doors stay open during warmer weather, when outdoor tables are also available.

The menu has changed very little over the years. Entrees include beef, chicken and lamb while the appetizers and salads are nearly all vegetarian. Lunchtime Monday through Saturday offers a vegetarian buffet ($7.95) that includes some entrees that are not listed on the menu. This is a great, inexpensive way to become acquainted with Casablanca’s menu.

The Middle Eastern standards of hummus ($4.95) and babaghannoj ($4.95) are always reliable. Hummus is a smooth puree of chickpeas with tahini, and babaghannoj is a puree of eggplant and a generous amount of garlic. The falafil ($5.95), served as a plate, offers grainy chickpea fritters with tahini, cucumbers, tomatoes, dark olives and those addictive purplehued pickled turnips. What truly stands out, however, is the adas majrous ($2.50-$4.50), a yellow lentil soup with carrot, onion and a mix of spices. It is a truly fine vegetarian soup. Then there are the stuffed grape leaves ($5.95-$11.95), with the smaller serving made as an appetizer. The leaves have a filling of rice, beef and an intense curry-like blend of spices that enhance rather than overpower the beef. The grape leaves are simply some of the best to be found locally.

Entrees include a choice of the lentil soup or a salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a light dressing. Grilled meats are one of the kitchen’s specialties. Kifta kabab is prepared with beef ($12.95) or lamb ($13.95). The minced meat is not made of a hamburger texture, which is the hallmark of a poor kabab. Instead, the meat coheres and has a light springy texture, with the correct amount of spices to make this a noteworthy dish. It is served over long-grained rice that no longer has the saffron tone it once had.

Chicken sumac ($11.95) is marinated with the bones in, and then grilled, so the meat remains succulent. The magenta-colored sumac is a tart, powdered spice. There is less of the sumac than in times past; now the chicken is topped with some caramelized onions and even peanuts. However, it still remains a fine entree.

Lamb shawarma ($12.95) is described as “Middle Eastern gyros,” but this vastly overrates the processed commercial products served at Greek restaurants. The lamb here is served in thin slices and a complex marinade of spices makes it nearly fragrant. It also has a dash of sumac to give it some color.

The front bar is as successful as the dining room. This is the place for some Turkish coffee, mint tea or perhaps a bottle of good Lebanese beer. There are several reasons for Casablanca’s success: the setting, warm service, fine food and affordable prices. And it’s a restaurant that is every bit as appealing to the vegetarian as it is to the meat eater.

CasaBlanca 728 E. Brady St. 414-271-6000 $$ Credit Cards: MC, VS Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes

Photos by Don Rask

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