I was late to the party at Casablanca. It had operated for well over 20 years when I finally visited, and truth be told, I might never have gone if not for the urging of my in-laws, out-of-towners who had enjoyed a couple memorable experiences there with local friends. My first evening there proved memorable, indeed—great food, great entertainment, great company—and I promised myself to put it at the top of my list of places to take friends for a fun night out.
But before a next visit ever happened, Casablanca closed, the victim of two fires a day apart. The building, with its distinctive onion dome on the roof, sat vacant so long, it seemed to be the end of one of the state’s truly unique places.
Then came good news: Owner Riyah Al-Baroki would reopen the restaurant. It took longer than planned, but Casablanca returned in early March. So the next visit has happened, and it has revealed more good news: Except for the new decor—still classically Moroccan—nothing has changed.
Authentic Moroccan decor.//Luis Javy Diaz
Despite the cavernous feeling of the large, open room, dining at Casablanca is an intimate experience of a different kind. Even those who know nothing else about the place seem to have heard that diners eat with pieces of pita—utensils are never offered—and that everyone shares from the same platter. So when Al-Baroki asked, “You don’t mind if I wash your hands?” shortly after seating us, we welcomed the ritual pouring of warm rosewater as a soothing start to the evening, as well as a vestige of hygiene from another time and place.
The dining areas are arranged as clusters of four low tables, each surrounded by a banquette and lush pillows on two sides, low stools on the other. On busy nights, you dine almost knee-to-knee with your neighbors, so the experience feels more like a family party than an evening at a restaurant.
Which is the intent. The menu features the best of what Al-Baroki describes as the seven courses his family would choose for a special dinner. Service begins with three salads presented on an ornate platter and a pile of fresh pita. The roasted carrots were mildly tart with vinegar and lemon. The tomato-cucumber salad offered a taste of warmer weather to come. The roasted eggplant was rich with tomato sauce and olive oil.
Dinner starts with a trio of delicious salads.//Luis Javy Diaz
Next comes a bastilla—a personal favorite—a small pie dense with lightly seasoned chicken and egg baked in puff pastry and topped with slices of almond. A dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon creates a contrast of sweet and savory. The pastry was a flaky delight.
Choose your next course: either a chicken roasted in spicy cumin sauce or with lemon. We chose the latter, and I was reminded of what stood out about my previous dinner at Casablanca: the perfect marriage of lemon, onion, garlic, parsley and ginger in the sauce and, most memorable, chicken more tender and moist than I have ever eaten. If I could roast a bird like that, I would stop eating out.
Diners are offered one more choice (except your drink): a next course of beef shish kebabs or lamb tagine with honey and almonds. We chose the lamb, generous chunks served on the bone. As with the chicken, it was amazingly moist and tender, but the drizzle of honey did little to tame the gamey edge of the meat. That edge was a surprise. Would that prevent me from ordering again? It would not.
Dinner continues with a large dish of steaming couscous with cubes of carrot and potato, olives and chickpeas, pieces of chicken and plump raisins. It was delicious and warming, but be warned: By this point, those with normal appetites may feel near bursting.
From left: Couscous with potatoes, vegetables and chicken; hot mint tea with sweet baklava.//Luis Javy Diaz
That’s OK. Take your time. No one is rushing to turn tables—the room seats more than 200—so you can relax. If you visit on a weekend, you can enjoy the belly dancer’s show while you rally for the final course of honey-drenched baklava and hot mint tea. And if you haven’t had enough, your table will be presented with a bowl of fresh fruit.
If you plan to dine solo, Al-Baroki offers a scaled-down meal. And he accommodates vegetarians. Dinner comes at a fixed price of $29 per person, which is the price of a single entrée at many restaurants. Not only is the food a bargain, but on the best of nights, the experience is priceless.
4010 N. Dupont Hwy., New Castle, 652-5344, www.casablancade.com
PRICE: $29 fixed for a seven-course meal
RECOMMENDED: Chicken in lemon sauce