Open Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Appetizers at dinner average $3, main curses $7 to $8. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip $15 to $20. Sunday buffet brunch $10.
That corner-of-many-faces at 21st and P Streets is becoming progressively more ethnic with each change of ownership, from the all-American Fairfax several years ago to the Americanized-Indonesian Bali to its current revival as the Casba. This latest, a Middle Eastern restaurant with a slight Moroccan accent, is a classic example of that American mainstay, the neighborhood ethnic restaurant. The characteristics of such an establishment are several: It must superimpose some native artifacts -- family treasures, perhaps -- over a mass-market version of whatever is the current restaurant decor (in this case modified California Chic rendered in plastic plants). It must serve native cuisine at modest prices and always include a few unexpectedly complex and delicious dishes for "insiders" to discover, though the bulk of the menu may be indifferent cooking. The service can be so clumsy as to imply that the staff just arrived from a small town in a country so far away that they have no notion of American -- or even public -- eating customs. But they must be so grateful for the opportunity to serve and eager to please that you pass off the ineptness as charm. In other words, an ethnic restaurant works when the food -- at least some of it -- is so good that your thoughts keep returning to the tastes, and the prices make you feel as if you have been given a small reprieve from the modern-day world. Under such circumstances, such clumsiness as one encounters becomes a small price to pay.
Casba comes close to this measure.
In any Middle Eastern restaurant, the highlight of the meal is expected to be the appetizers. There is a long tradition to back that, and often the mezze -- small dishes of varied appetizers, sometimes dozens of them -- serves as the whole meal. Main courses are insignificant if not unnecessary. Casba's appetizers fit the mode, for they are the best of the menu. You can order a mezze (spelled maza on this menu) for two for $16, or build your own from the four salads, five appetizers and three meat pies on the menu. Certainly include the felafel, those chick pea fritters light and airy, green inside from a strong dose of herbs and heavily perfumed with cumin; they are as good as any in town, maybe better. The salads -- the tabouleh being light on the cracked wheat and very crunchy-fresh, the Egyptian beans also lemony, with some bite to the freshly cooked beans -- taste as pungent and lively as if the chef had access to a good open-air market. The hummos and baba ghanouj are well blanced and moist versions of these two sesame paste dips. The pita bread is served hot, and with it an excellent tart sesame dip, gratis. There are cheese salad and yogurt-mint salad and tomato-cucumber salad, all of them spicy and vibrant. With a good $10 California wine they could -- and probably should -- be dinner.
Among the main courses I have tried, the couscous was most endearing, its grains of wheat soft and buttery, the bland steamed lamb enlivened with shredded hot peppers. It was a rather slap-dash version, but hearty and warming. Otherwise, the filo stuffed with lamb was tasteless and dry, with the flavors of the ingredients hardly intermingling; and the kibbe was reheated so that the meat was stiff and dry, but rested in a pool of grease. The main courses are not extensive, in addition to those mentioned there are a few kebabs, a couple of stuffed vegetables and chicken, a fish and -- inexplicably -- a curry. Most interesting prospect was macloubey, rice cooked with tomatoes, eggplant, lamb and pine nuts, molded into an attractive round. But again the seasoning -- lots of cumin -- did not penetrate the meat but merely the eggplant, which was the best part of the dish. The mixture was alternately spicy and bland, and the rice was unfortunately damp. Filo dough pie -- either meat, spinach or cheese -- could serve as a light main course or an appetizer for two. Opt for the meat, for it is well seasoned and the dough is light and buttery; the spinach pie had no bite to it.
If you leapfrog from appetizers to dessert -- crisp and flaky but intensely honeyed baklava with pistachios or walnuts -- you will consider Casba a good find. Even the beverage choices -- lemonade, iced or hot mint tea. Turkish coffee with cardamom pods floating in it -- have charms.
All this is enhanced by lace tablecloths (even if they are under plastic protectors), grasscloth walls on which are hung Oriental carpets, and pierced brass lanterns dripping fringes of beads. The musical background of Middle Eastern instrumentals is appealing when the room is sufficiently full that it stays as a background; in an empty room it is intrusive. As for the incense, like cardamom in your coffee and mint in your tea, it is a matter of personal taste.
Casba is at its best and its worst for Sunday brunch, but that is the time I would choose to try it again. Two dozen dishes were spread on tables, half a dozen desserts lined up at the bar. And the chef wisely threw caution to the winds in seasoning the buffet food. Thus, the stuffed vegetables -- cabbage, eggplant, grape leaves -- were explosions of spices. The rice with lamb was laden with allspice and cloves. The bean dishes, one reminiscent of boiled peanuts and the other chick peas, were in a milky sauce strong with pepper, lemon and onions. Those were the main dishes, none very elegant but all more interesting than the dinner entrees had been. And the bold seasoning works for a buffet because you are not stuck with one dish if it has too much seasoning for you.
As usual, the appetizers were excellent, and there was the chance to taste the full range, from crispy stuffed kibbe rolls with almonds and pine nuts to chile-hot raw kibbe to salads and dips and that fine felafel. Lower marks go to the desserts, which all looked beautiful but tasted either too sweet or starchy or pasty.
Ah, but the service that was sweet and attentive at dinner was nothing but awkward and uncomfortable in this setting. Several staff people stood around smiling and trying to look friendly, but nobody removed our empty plates when we returned to the buffet. We finally piled them on a nearby table. Almost none of the buffet dishes had spoons to serve ourselves with. We had no place to put the huge lids from the warming pans and had to take turns holding them as we filled our plates; the staff just looked on. The water and tea refills ground to a halt by mid-meal. And the pita was either overheated to a crunch or stale to begin.
For $10, though, it was a worthwhile education in Middle Eastern cooking.