Thursday, January 21, 2010

Casablanca: Middle Eastern Meets East Side

It has been a long time coming, this review. We've been saying we wanted to get to Casablanca since before the new year, but as life often does (particularly to the Eating Milwaukee Staff), things took turns we just didn't expect.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I had met owner Alaa Musa a few months ago, during the course of working one of my Clark-Kent-esque day jobs. I promise, that relationship will not inform the review. At all. Mostly.

We descended on Casablanca for lunch on a Saturday, to sample the mythical "lunch buffet" we had heard so much about. After a few near-misses in East Side traffic, and a few trips around the block thanks to my GPS, I finally got parked in the smallish, but nonetheless convenient parking lot next to the restaurant. This put me in a good mood immediately. An East Side business with a parking lot. It's almost like saying "touching an electric eel with insulating gloves" or "an Illinois driver with good manners." You'd really like it to be the case all the time, but in reality it almost never happens. Ever.

Casablanca's interior is gorgeous, with rich oxblood walls undulating with iridescent red tiles. The lighting is comfortably low,  with big, mullion windows adorned with tasteful treatments. The feel is cozy, chíc, upscale, but never off-putting. Furniture is spartan and clean.

As we sat down, a memory came flooding back to me, something that Lauren had said a few weeks ago when we were preparing for this trip, "...the lunch buffet is vegetarian..." Oh, no, I thought. No meat. No meat! This was going to be ho-hum. I'm going to have to choke everything down with a half-smile, act like I loved every bite, and then promptly stop at Kopps on the way home for a burger. Yes, this was going to be a painful luncheon. I abhor vegetarian cuisine.

It's not that I hate the concept of vegetarianism. I suppose it's noble, if you think giving up steak is noble. I just don't like how most vegetarian food somehow tries to ape its meaty counterparts. Veggie burgers? Whatever. Just call them bean patties. I can respect that. Chicken-less nuggets? Whatever. Call them TVP delights, for all I care. Just call it like it is.

As I got settled and got the Nikon ready for shooting, our bubbly and fun waitress asked us if we wanted a side of meat. I immediately got a pit in my stomach, recalling an incident involving a friend from college trying to order a burrito at Chipotle:

Friend, (We'll call her Carrie to protect her identity): Hi, I'd like a meat burrito.
Chipotle clerk: Okay, what kind of meat?
Carrie: Um, you know... meat?
CC: Um, no, I don't know... meat.
Carrie: Meat. Burrito.
CC: We have pork, beef, chicken, steak, ground beef...
Carrie: That's it! Ground beef! See, I said a meat burrito!
CC: right.

However, if this worked out okay, we wouldn't have to endure a meatless meal. Huzzah! We all decided to order a different "meat," and share our meaty payload when it arrived.

Lauren ordered Chicken Kabob:

Andy had the Lamb Kifta kabob:

And I had the Lamb and Beef Shawarma:

Meanwhile, we ravenously scrambled to the buffet line:

Where we found a small battalion of cold salads:

A variety of hot dishes:

and an array of desserts:

Coming back, my plate looked like a hot mess:

Now, rather than go in to lurid detail about every item on the buffet (which I did try, and caused me great pain as my stomach stretched to inhuman size to accommodate), I think it's best to try to give a sweeping, generalized overview. 'Cause that's what we Americans do best.

Everything we tried was astounding in its own right. Each salad, each hot dish had a flavor all its own, different spicing, different flavor profiles. It was an amazing array: different textures, different colors. Nothing bland, nothing watered down. All the while, I kept sighing in amazement that I was enjoying salads so much.

Some of the standout salads are as follows:

Tahini Salad: Oh, remember, dear reader, when I ranted about the virtues of Tahini during the review for Shahrazad? Well, apparently the Fates heard my cry, because the Tahini Salad at Casablanca is basically everything I love about food, all in one fresh, brilliant dish. Crispy cucumbers, juicy tomatoes, and a bright and creamy tahini dressing that made my eyes roll back in their sockets and my mouth water at the very thought. The dressing was rich, complex, and intriguing, with a depth of flavor that you might not expect from sesame seeds. Awesome.

Cucumber Yogurt Salad: Rich, rich, rich. I immediately thought back to summers, helping my Grandma make her creamed cucumbers. Salting the cucumber and onion slices. Straining the sour cream. Oh, but these cukes weren't anything like Grandma's (who is shaking her fist at me from the great Kitchen In The Sky right now). Insanely creamy and rich, flavorful, but never overpowering. And the cucumbers retained enough crunch so that you didn't forget what they were.

Potato Salad: cold, mashed potatoes, with the flavor of classic American potato salad, except much, much brighter (thank the addition of lemon juice). We couldn't get enough of these!

Tuboleh: a classic, and relatively simple, this bulgar salad is light and refreshing, with its strong notes of mint.

It should be noted as well, that there were large dishes of both Hummus and Babaghannoj with the salads, along with a bottomless basket of fresh pita bread. Both the hummus and babaghannoj were exceptional, with the hummus delicate and nutty, and the babaghannoj strong with the distinct taste of roasted, almost charred eggplant. I ate way more than my fair share.

The hot line was equally impressive, with multiple rice dishes, as well as roasted and stewed veggies. While they were all tasty (and that's not a cop-out statement!), I would have to say I enjoyed the eggplant with potatoes, and carrots with garlic the best. Both incorporated such surprising flavors, the eggplant being succulent and tender, the carrots both sweet and intensely garlicky at the same time. And that's when it occurred to me:

When vegetables are cooked properly, they can (and should) hold their own in a dish. Vegetables can stand up as the star ingredient when treated right.

Which is not to say that our meats weren't delicious, because they certainly were. Lauren's chicken was nearly perfectly cooked, if not a little towards over-done. But delicately spiced, and very much a good match for the veggies on the buffet.

Andy's lamb kabobs were tender and flavorful, while my shawarma was to die for. But no meat held a candle to what was quite possibly my favorite item on the line: the falafel.

Crispy, nutty, hot, fluffy on the inside, perfectly seasoned, and never, ever greasy... I had found a new favorite falafel. I could eat the falafel on its own, as a meal. I could buy them in bulk and bathe in them. I'm considering dumping my old feather pillow and filling one with falafel, just so I can rest my head on it. To hell with my cat, I want a 17-pound ball of falafel instead, put a collar on it and let it sleep on my couch. Yes, the falafel is that good.

Rounding out our meal was a frosty glass of rosewater lemonade, and a few desserts. The obligatory baklava:

A crispy, tender butter cookie:

And a Kanafeh-style dessert:

The baklava was exceptional: buttery without being sickly sweet like most people are used to. All in all, the light pastries were the perfect end to a filling (and surprisingly enchanting) meal.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: A
Probably the first restaurant to earn this grade (can someone out there fact check for me?). Alaa and his family have done a wonderful job creating a welcoming, intimate space that perfectly complements their homey, comforting food.

Prices: A
The lunch buffet is extremely affordable considering the amount of items available to you, and for an extra $4, you can add your choice of meat! Dining off the menu is downright cheap, with the highest price you'll pay for an entrée being a mere $15.

Service: A
The entire staff was enthusiastic and welcoming, conversational and genuinely warm.

The Food: A
Do we see a trend in the grades? Everything we tried was delicious, with a few truly outstanding items. I can honestly say I didn't have a gripe about a single thing I consumed, and wow, was that a lot of food.

The Details:

Casablanca Middle Eastern Restaurant
(414) 271-6000
728 E. Brady St.
Milwaukee, WI 53202

A gorgeous and informative website is available here, along with a menu, hours of operation, etc., etc..

Casablanca on Urbanspoon


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