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OUT OF AFRICA

The French use the term "la casbah" as slang for "party." It's fitting, then, that La Casbah is the name of a festive new North African restaurant.

La Casbah is only the second restaurant to bring the foods of the Arabian west--Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, with a heavy emphasis on Morocco here--to the Denver area. (Mataam Fez was the first). But if it continues to offer food as interesting as the dishes I've sampled, served by expert staffers passionate about their work, it certainly won't be the last. The time is right for this kind of food, and such superb service is always welcome. Health-conscious diners are already intensely interested in the lighter dishes of the Mediterranean. What our geography-ignorant country fails to realize, however, is that directly across the sea from Europe lies North Africa--an area with an access to seafood and many of the same fruits and vegetables.

North Africa's history adds unique flavor to these basics. Centuries as the primary trade route between the Middle East and Europe, as well as occupation by the Ottoman Turks, exposed the mostly Islamic (read: strict dietary laws) land to an expansive array of ingredients.

The area's lack of water inspired other dining innovations. "Houses have water fountains in the middle of the house, not only so that dusty travelers may wash, but also because an abundance of water makes North Africans more relaxed," says Bahram Ghafarian, part owner of La Casbah. "They don't have to worry about drought." To duplicate that soothing quality, La Casbah has a fountain in the middle of its dining room and a mosaic-decorated sink in the lobby where diners can wash.

Mosaics also decorate some of the elegant serving pieces. Chef Rachid Jouy, another part owner who once worked at Mataam Fez, carried them on his lap when he flew to this country from his native Morocco seven years ago. "The dishwasher is on special notice about these plates," says Jouy.

Visitors are on special notice from the moment they enter the dining room. La Casbah has no hard, straight-backed chairs. Instead the tables are arranged so that no matter what size the party, every diner sinks into a sofa that is richly costumed with gold-threaded material from Morocco. The rest of the decor is equally lavish: Intricately carved brass steamers, kettles and teapots abound, and other Moroccan objets d'art hang from the carved wooden partitions that give each dining area the feel of an alcove.

You appreciate all these comforts when a meal lasts a couple of hours--as a banquet here easily can. La Casbah lists more than two dozen versions of its five-course dinner, ranging from $18 to $25, depending on the entree (a la carte dinner items run between $8 and $14). Typical of a culture that serves little beef and no pork, the menu emphasizes lamb (the most common meat in North Africa), chicken, duck and several types of seafood, presented in both incredibly simple and amazingly complex preparations.

The first of the five courses is always lentil soup with cumin and coriander. North Africans often eat their meals without utensils, and none are offered here--an exotic touch that we enjoyed until the steaming entrees arrived. The semi-chunkiness of the potent soup made slurping it from cups an indelicate affair; after each mouthful, we found ourselves wiping with the large towel wisely substituted for a napkin.

The next course was less unwieldy, thanks to the pleasantly doughy, individual loaves of bread handed out by our waiter from a large basket. Torn chunks of the bread became the perfect utensils for what the menu referred to simply as "salad" but which arrived as heaping portions of six eclectic mixtures. One was a hot-pepper-laced pile of sliced carrots splashed with rose water; another featured chunks of eggplant with onions in juicy tomato sauce. The third was a vinegar-spiked potato salad, the fourth a simple saute of spinach in clarified butter, the fifth a combination of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with tarragon added for extra flavor. The star of the sextet, though, was the hummus--one of the best I've tasted, with just the right combination of pureed chickpeas, olive oil, garlic and tahina (a sesame-seed paste also called tahini). This hummus's faintly pink hue and uncommon flavor suggested the addition of paprika.

The third--and most exotic--course, a perfect foil for the tart tastes of the salads, quickly followed. For b'stilla (or bastela), a wheel of phyllo dough is layered with custardlike eggs and tiny bits of chicken and ground almonds, with liberal sprinkles in between of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and other, indistinguishable spices. The overall effect was a break from the serious parts of the meal; the b'stilla acted as a light palate-cleanser that pleased the eye with its stenciled cocoa palm trees and powdering of confectioners' sugar.

It was a perfect setup for what came next: the entrees. The beef brochette ($22, also available with lamb) was the simplest: chunks of tasty meat skewered with hunks of turnips, potatoes, carrots, green peppers and onions, then grilled in a mild, turmeric-tinged marinade. Chicken couscous ($21.75) was only slightly more complex: two thighs and a drumstick, skin on, cooked in olive oil with turmeric, garlic and plenty of ginger. The vegetables served atop this mountain of food had been steamed without spices; the carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, turnips and zucchini would have benefited from some of the chicken's seasonings. Somewhat more flavorful was La Casbah's rib special ($25), described as marinated in olive oil and pomegranate sauce, then grilled with garlic and onion. The garlic and onion were there, all right, but the dish was devoid of any sweet-and-sour pomegranate flavor. The three decent-size ribs had been cooked perfectly, though, with the grilling imparting a crispy yet juicy texture. Perhaps a later application of the marinade would have punched up the taste; the ubiquitous pile of steamed vegetables certainly didn't. Our favorite dish, the chicken apricot ($21.75), certainly didn't lack for flavor. Saffron, turmeric and just a touch of ginger touched off a taste explosion in a slightly sweet apricot sauce that contained chunks of the fruit; the sauce was poured over two thighs and a drumstick (again, skin on) for a delectable Moroccan specialty.

Most entrees come with saffron rice or couscous; for my money, the couscous is a better choice. Made of semolina flour ground to a smaller grain than I've seen before, the couscous was just dry enough to take on the liquids of the meats and vegetables. The saffron rice, on the other hand, lacked both saffron flavor and color; the high price of the spice usually dictates against it being used well in this country. (Not so in Morocco, where saffron grows in abundance and is used extensively for cooking, medicine and dyes.)

The portions were so generous that we were unable to finish our entrees; fortunately, La Casbah is happy to send leftovers home with you. We had ours packaged up as we awaited the finale: another hand-washing, followed by a splash of rose- and orange-blossom waters that our waiter encouraged us to pat on our faces. Then individual cakes of baklava, not too sticky-sweet, were served, along with mint-steeped tea to aid the digestion. What a meal! Casbah on, dudes.

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