Alejandro Dowling
(12/14/2005)

My friend and I arrived at Casablanca for our second visit on one of the coldest nights of the year so far. When we entered, the waiter from our previous visit immediately recognized us. He was extremely friendly and attentive.

The moment I sat down I felt like I was in a different world, far away from the frigid outdoors.

Two months after Casablanca’s opening owner Musa Nasser, of Palestinian descent, is content with his restaurant, which is located on Brady Street just past the strip of bars and taverns.

Formerly called the Sahara Inn, Musa co-owns Casablanca with his brother, Alaa, and his father, Jesse, who passed the business on to his sons. Although the building is new, this restaurant has actually been in business for 15 years. Casablanca’s name derives from Jesse’s time in Morocco and his love for the famous 1942 movie.

It is easy to see why there are so many regular customers. The decor simulates an Arabian paradise. Upon entering the restaurant, Hindi music can be heard playing from a satellite channel.

Straight ahead in the first room lies a wall of beautiful commercial hookahs. To the left stands a fully loaded bar, each bottle neatly stacked. This is where Musa can usually be found, conversing with patrons and fixing drinks such as the Casablanca Cocktail, a house favorite, which is a blend of fresh strawberries, mango and bananas, and can be made with or without Malibu rum.

Next to the bar is the smoking section where people can hang out and enjoy puffs out of a hookah for $10 a pop. The tobacco burns for a long time and the flavors range from black grape to mixed berry.

The low-key lighting of this room, which represents the night, accentuated by a floor composed of dark blue tiles, evokes a comfortable nocturnal ambience.

In the other, slightly larger dining area to the right of the entryway, the setting is more luminous. This half of the restaurant represents the day. The floor and walls are splashed with warm colors like yellows and tans. Several vibrant paintings depicting camel riders hang above the tables.

In the corner of this spacious room there is a stage set up where a couple of camel figures reside when there is no event going on. Not only does this part of the restaurant resemble daylight, but it also has a desert vibe to it.

The interior design of Casablanca is superb in every detail right down to the restrooms, which boast elegant marble floors and feature speakers playing soothing sitar melodies in the background. The restroom doors feature single photographs — one door with Humphrey Bogart and the other with Ingrid Bergman, instead of the usual “Men” and “Women” signs.

The menu has something for everyone. Customers can choose from the finest of Middle Eastern cuisine and every item is reasonably priced. Appetizers, with an assortment that includes a falafel platter (balls made of spiced ground chickpeas) and spinach pie, go for about $5 each.

Entrees cost between $12 and $15 and include yellow rice topped with cilantro, a bowl of steaming lentil soup, and warm pita bread. There is a vegetarian buffet for $6.95 Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Some of the standout dishes are the shawarma (lamb, spices and vegetables), kifta kabab (lean sirloin with spices and vegetables) and the stuffed grape leaves.

For those customers who are a bit strapped for cash, there is a sandwich menu that features items like the shish kabob (skewer of meat) that average around $5 to $6 per plate. There are also a wonderful variety of tasty beverages, rich desserts and fresh salads.

My friend ordered the beef kifta kabab and I chose the chicken sumac. Upon being served our bowls of lentil soup, we were told that a Campbell’s representative had tried (unsuccessfully) to purchase the recipe for it. I could see why.

The entrees were served to us in a timely manner and the portions were quite generous. The leg of chicken was perfectly moist and blended well with the seasoned rice. The kabab was flavorful, with a bite to it.

We ordered a rich, sugary cake known as hedasa for dessert.

There was only one thing left to do. Our waiter loaded up a three-foot hookah for us and we strolled on over to the night room where other groups were already enjoying their smoke.

While puffing down delicious strawberry tobacco, we spoke with Musa, who is both amicable and intelligent. He told us how excited he was to run such a unique restaurant and he is pleased with the way it turned out. I could not agree more.

With its excellent service, enchanting atmosphere and delectable menu, Casablanca offers customers a truly exceptional dining experience.