Several months after my second daughter was born, I thought it would be a great idea to host a dinner party, since I was feeling kind of stir-crazy and lonely and hadn't seen many of my friends for months. As my husband dislikes big groups--we seem to have some unresolved issues involving my turning into a drill sergeant and his being made a grunt during such get-togethers, but I think he's just overly sensitive--I decided to have the party one night while he was working. I invited twenty-some people, got all the fixings for a big pot of monkfish bouillabaisse and looked forward to an enchanting evening of enthralling conversation and relaxed noshing.
Yeah, right. About halfway through the evening, my six-month-old began crying inconsolably, the appetizers were disappearing at breakneck speed, and I still needed to cook the fish. At one point I looked into the eyes of my best friend, who was asking me for the thousandth time what the kids were supposed to be drinking, and I remember that my mind began to reel. What the hell was I thinking?
Something similar was surely going through the mind of Said Benjelloun the night I first visited Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant. Just what had he been thinking?
The Moroccan native opened this beguiling eatery six months ago with his friend, Saba Hailemichael. Both are veteran Denver restaurateurs: Benjelloun cooked for his brother, the owner of Mataam Fez, until 1993, then opened the Casablanca Bistro at Pierce and Mineral, which he closed two years later. Hailemichael, who's originally from Ethiopia, ran Meskerem for five years until she closed it two years ago. Since then, the two had been working in assorted restaurants around town--until last summer, when they decided to try a joint effort and opened Casablanca.
This "white house" is set up to feel like a home--a Moroccan home. The Berber-tent atmosphere includes comfortable places to sit on the floor (Benjelloun says they'll soon get rid of chairs altogether), beautiful billowy fabrics hanging from the ceilings, and white clouds drifting by on baby-blue walls. The caftan-clad Benjelloun is host and server: charming, hospitable, a little exotic, slightly flirtatious--and in over his head.
While Casablanca's menu urges diners to "Come to the unique flavors of Morocco at our home," it's a little hard for Benjelloun to pour on the down-home charm when he's the only person working the room. It wasn't supposed to be this way--at least, not according to Benjelloun's original plan--but Casablanca suffers from the same labor shortage affecting every other local restaurant. As a result, Benjelloun has had to handle the front of the house solo while Hailemichael contends with the kitchen. Fortunately, since they both have a cooking background, they can switch places periodically so neither gets too insane from the pressure.
Also fortunately, while the front room may be short on service, the stellar dishes coming out of the kitchen are long on flavor. You simply have to prepare yourself for a long wait before you get your first taste. Or a seat, for that matter.
Our first visit was on one of those sub-zero nights, and we stood in the cold entryway for close to ten minutes waiting for someone to notice us. The only people in the dining room were two couples who were already eating, and when another party came in behind us, we decided to seat ourselves. That's when Benjelloun came out of the kitchen, and he was pretty cranky, telling us that we couldn't sit there because he had many reservations. So we got up and followed him back to the entryway, where he promptly turned around and told us to go sit where we'd been sitting. Ah, but then he punished us, putting a group of four at the next table, which was rather close--while there were ten other empty tables where he could have seated them, all at a comfortable distance from ours.
But the close proximity gave us a chance to chat with the four-top. And when, as threatened, the place began filling up--still with only Benjelloun serving--we noticed that the tight squeeze of the tables inspired others to meet their neighbors, too. Before long, it started to feel like a party.
I've yet to encounter food like this at a private dinner gathering, though. The best way to sample it is through the fixed-price five-course dinner, which is $23.95 for the regular entrees, $27.95 for the house specials. We went with one of each. Both meals began with b'stella--which I've also seen as b'steeya, bastilla and bastela--that's a glorious combination of sweet and savory, with crispy layers of phyllo filled with chicken, onions, saffron and crushed almonds, then sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was part appetizer, part dessert, and pure heaven.
Like everything else served at Casablanca--and, in fact, in most of Morocco--the b'stella was to be eaten with our hands; there was not a fork in sight. This eating technique explains why many Moroccan restaurants offer ritual hand-washing. Benjelloun, however, was so busy that he forgot to wash our hands until we were about to walk out the door.
So we licked the sugar from our fingers, then dug into a trio of Moroccan salads. One was called alfalfla mechouia, a name that confused me, because I always thought mechoui was roasted lamb, and this was a mix of grilled green peppers, tomatoes, olives, parsley and cilantro. Still, the salad was ideally balanced and full of fresh, sharp flavors. A second cold salad, the house version, brought cucumbers, tomatoes and onions together in a spice-flecked olive oil redolent with cumin. The third salad was warm: dense, long-simmered eggplant with an undercurrent of turmeric and cinnamon.
Such spices, of course, are the main draw of Moroccan food. The harira soup, for example, contained the traditional meaty-lamb base and lentils, as well as copious amounts of saffron and parsley and, most important, just enough cilantro to add a slight bitterness that balanced out the sweet lamb. A second soup, the chorba fassia, was minestrone Moroccan style, with seven vegetables, parsley and saffron. Most of the vegetables were pureed and thus unidentifiable, but there was no mistaking the depth of flavor provided by the layering of so many ingredients.
The medleys continued with our entrees. The house special of salmon tajine ("tajine" refers to both the conical ceramic pot used in African cooking and the stews themselves) was a saffron-and-ginger marvel; the huge fish filet had nearly disintegrated in a lemon-based broth. The lamb mrouzia brought a tender shank that had been cooked with raisins, almonds and honey until the coating was more like a glaze; the sweetness of the sauce was enhanced by the spice of cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger and cloves.
After all that, dessert--four slices of skin-on banana--was a little disappointing. But we were happy to settle our stomachs with a few cups of mint tea, poured from the ceremonious height of four feet. (Benjelloun says all of Casablanca's spices and herbs, including the traditional mint tea, are imported from his native country.)
At lunch, Casablanca keeps things à la carte, with a smaller selection, lower prices and only slightly smaller portions. Since we'd already tried all of the soups and salads, we stuck with entrees and were amazed at the potent flavors of the shrimp royale brochette ($12.95). The huge pile of large shrimp (see Mouthing Off for the recipe) had been marinated and grilled in their shells--cooking them that way gives them an extra boost--then served with couscous studded with raisins and almonds. The steamed semolina--a dish created by the Berbers that is best when cooked properly, as it was here, in a couscoussier--was the focal point of the garden couscous ($6.95), a vegetarian's dream of zucchini, tomatoes, onions, green bell peppers and carrots, all sweetened with raisins and saffron on a bed of warm, moist couscous.
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Since lunch was a bit slower than dinner, Benjelloun had more time to be a gracious host. Our hands were washed soon after we sat down, our food arrived in a timely fashion, and we left feeling a little more relaxed than we had the first time. But then, it's always easier to feel like the life of the party when it's not your party.
I don't know what Benjelloun was thinking when he opened Casablanca, but I know what I think: You'll regret it if you don't eat here--maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.
Play it again, Said. Just get some help.
Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant,
2488 South University Boulevard, 303-871-0494.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.