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

Monday, January 11, 2010

Capri: An honest-to-blog Spaghetti Restaurant!

I have had such a horrible, gut-wrenching, lizard-brain need for some Italian food lately. In the words of Debbie Reynolds, "'s like herione."

The trouble is, Milwaukee is kind of fickle about Italian.

Oh, sure. There's the Olive Garden. And Carrabba's. But those are big scary chains. With big scare calorie counts, big scary bills, and big scary ingredients in their big scary portions.

And I suppose, we have Mama Mia's. That counts, right? And Ann's, which is awesome, but... missing something.

And then there's the pizza places. Oh, the pizza places. Marco's, Maria's, Hup's, Balistreri's... but that's not what we're talking about here.

No, what I've been searching for is a restaurant to play surrogate to my beloved (and oft-visited) Victoria's in Appleton. No, it's not without its flaws. But, c'mon... have you had their pasta with Bianco sauce? Seriously.

So, it was a ho-hum Saturday evening, and after having watched three episodes of Six Feet Under back to back, I decided we should probably do another review.

Actually, Andy decided we should do another review. I was content to stay wrapped up on my couch and eat cold Spaghetti-O's all night. But I'm lame like that.

And we settled on Capri. Now, I had heard from some co-workers that Capri was the spaghetti restaurant back in the day. This intrigued me. There was such a thing as a restaurant devoted entirely to spaghetti? Really?

Well, yes and no, in the case of Capri. As their sign clearly states, they are a Pizza / Spaghetti restaurant. Glad we got that cleared up. But it's still important to note: spaghetti was once a star dish, and though we may look back on times when noodles and meat sauce got top billing with a smirk, I wouldn't be so quick to judge; I imagine, not too long from now, we'll see sushi bars as quaint.

In a time before the Food Network, before Celebrity Chefs, before Guy Fieri (Gawd, he drives me NUTS), spaghetti was a dinner to be eaten out. Sometimes in a swanky joint downtown, sometimes in a family restaurant in the neighborhood. Capri was (and still is) one of the latter.

Is Capri going to replace Victoria's in my hall of tasty pasta? Well, not exactly. But they're not the same thing, either, as we were about to find out...

Capri is housed in a smallish building on the corner of Beloit Rd. and S. 84th St. The building is, well, a bit homely, and you might not even notice it if you aren't looking for it. Relatively ample parking, and easy in and out from both streets make it pleasantly accessible. Once you're parked, don't forget that the door is facing 84th -- we ending up walking around the building before we figured that one out.

The interior is, well, homely, too. But that's okay.

I mean, it's always these places that have the best food. Look at Tandoor, for cripe's sake! If we went on looks alone, none of us would touch it with a ten-foot cattle prod. But oh, the food...

When we came in, the place was packed. Packed. I think nearly every booth was filled. That's a good sign. We had already checked out the menu online, and so we had an idea of what the offerings were. No exotic grilled meats, or heavy crazy white sauces. No flown-in-daily seafood or any of that silliness. Oh, no. It's either pizza, or pasta. And you get your pasta one of two ways: either red, or tetrazzini.

We asked our very kind, very helpful waitress about a couple of things on the menu: how was the Italian Sausage? Very good, she said, kind of spicy. How was the veal? Eh, not her favorite, she said. And the infamous manicotti? Oh, very good, she recommended.

So, Andy ordered the Capri Special (homemade Italian sausage and mostaccioli):

Lauren ordered the mostaccioli with meat and mushroom sauce:

And I ordered the Manicotti:

We all ordered our dinners, well, "dinner" style, which meant that we got them with two absolutely, freakin' huge hunks of garlic bread:

As well as a salad:

and our choice of minestrone or French onion soup. Lauren and I ordered the French onion:

While Andy ordered the minestrone:

Let's start off with the garlic bread, shall we?

Perhaps "garlic loaf" would have been a more appropriate name, and we each had two pieces to devour, and I really don't think the picture does justice to the scale of these things. Let's just say, with the weight of just one, a small yacht may not be seaworthy. The bread was liberally soaked in garlic-butterness, toasty and crunchy in all the right places, but incredibly soft on the inside. Yes, the basket had a puddle of yellow butterness in it that would make the Exxon-Valdez look weak. Yes, the oiliness got a little cloying at times. But all in all, this is the way I like my garlic bread: my grandpa Al used to actually dip his bread in a saucepan of melted "oleo" and garlic salt. So I'm perfectly on board with my anchor from the RMS Lusitania.

Our salads were nice, but nothing too out of the ordinary. A few slices of cheese, pepperoni, and peperoncinis were nice additions. Lauren, however, had the Italian dressing on hers, and it was absolutely delightful. Andy's and my ranch dressings were, well, ranch. I'd recommend the Italian, without hesitation.

Andy's minestrone was quite nice; light, with a deep tomato flavor, highlighted with the aromas of fresh vegetables. Lauren's and my French onion soups were equally tasty, and while I certainly love me some French onion soup topped with a piece of crusty bread and about two pounds of gruyere, I made an exception. The soup was well-flavored, full-bodied and had no hint of onion/beef base one-notey-ness that can fell so many other French onion soups.

As for the entrées, well, they were huge. And tasty. Huge and tasty.

Andy's sausage wasn't exactly what I would call spicy, but rather well spiced. Flavorful, juicy, and without that overpowering fennel taste that so many Italian sausages bang their chests with. If Italian sausages had chests. 

The sauce that accompanied Andy's sausages (2) was equally flavorful, but never heavy handed. There was a little hint of spice there, too, and over the mostaccioli it made for nice traditional meal.

Lauren's mostaccioli with meat and mushroom sauce was delicious, with a rich, weighty meat sauce (more meat than sauce, really), and well-cooked pasta.

My manicotti was divine, stuffed with ricotta cheese and herbs. The manicotti (2) were slathered in meat sauce which served quite well as a dip for my garlic-butter boat-anchor. The whole ordeal was topped with tons of cheese and then put under the salamander to melt the cheese. My only gripe, if any, was that I had more sauce than pasta on my plate... would have loved just one more manicotti.

Our dinners were topped off with small dishes of spumoni ice cream:

Which, despite the fact we were completely and utterly stuffed, slid down just fine, and was a perfect cap to a huge, delicious, down-home Italian meal.

Sure, it's not Victoria's. There are no insane concoctions of twenty meats, cheeses, and asparagus. You will not find poached salmon on the menu. But that's okay.

Because Capri represents an old-school approach: a little restaurant, family-run and family-oriented, that does a few things, simply and well. And there's something deeply comforting about a good plate of pasta and red sauce, no matter what form they take. I'm confident everyone has a fond memory from childhood involving this perennial favorite, as I know I do. It's simple. It's insanely tasty. It drips with love (and garlic butter), and it makes for some awesome leftovers.

Sure, the offerings aren't highbrow. But we loved Capri just the same, and can't wait to go back again.

Report Card:
Atmosphere: B-
The interior of Capri certainly isn't anything to write home about. Music, laughter, dishes clanking, and dated wood panelling and light fixtures. Reminds me of my grandparent's house. But in a good way!

Prices: A-
Dinners were, for the most part, in the $12-$15 range. And you get a lot of food for that money.

Service: A
Our waitress was extremely friendly and helpful. I always appreciate honesty when recommending dishes, as well -- so extra points for letting us know about the star dishes!

The Food: B+
Good, wholesome, quality, stick-to-your-ribs Italian food. Nothing you couldn't make at home, but nothing would taste quite as good at home, either. Come for the pizza or pasta, stay because the loaf of garlic bread has completely incapacitated you.

The Details:

Capri Pizza & Spaghetti
(414) 543-5510
8340 W. Beloit Rd.
West Allis, WI 53219

Online menu and pricing available here (WARNING! Prices and offerings may be out of date!).

Capri Pizza on Urbanspoon