CASABLANCA -- 1504 King St., Alexandria. 549-6464. Open: Monday through Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Reservations suggested. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: fixed-price six-course meal $18, seven courses $20. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $30 per person.
ow that we have our third Moroccan restaurant, Casablanca, it is hard to imagine how we got along without any a few years ago.
After all, Moroccan food is highly aromatic, delectably seasoned along the entire scale from lemon tartness to olive saltiness to honey sweetness. Cumin and red pepper are themes, and sweet frequently plays against savory in one dish. A Moroccan dinner is served in a parade of courses to be eaten with your hands, generally sitting at a low sofa surrounded by pillows. The meal starts with a waiter washing your hands over a monumentally ornate silver basin, pouring from an elaborate matching pitcher. It ends with another hand-washing, this time with rose water. This is more than a dinner; it is an evening in which all your tastes are entertained.
Casablanca looks as much like a nightclub as it does a restaurant. The large dining room, furnished with low tables and high-back chairs that appear none too comfortable, is surrounded by private nooks with far more inviting sofas. After all, the six- and seven-course feasts at Casablanca are more suited to reclining than to sitting bolt upright.
Mosaics of bright colors decorate the ceiling, vivid satin fabrics cover chairs and windows, and a dancing fountain, lit by multicolored spots, is the centerpiece of the dining room. In all, the room looks more like a plastic-coated sultan's palace than a work of folk art. This is theater, even circus. The waiters and waitresses wear costumes of satin and gold braid. They deliver speeches to introduce the meal. They narrate each course. And suddenly, in the middle of the evening, the music lowers and the lights focus on a belly dancer who presents a short intermission to feasting.
Fortunately, the food is serious enough to overcome the hokeyness.
The menu offers two options -- an $18 feast with two entrees or a $20 feast with three entrees. Choosing a couscous with meat rather than just vegetables will cost $2 more per person. There are two hitches to this fixed-price menu: Everyone at the table must order the same entrees, so a table of four or six can sample only two or three entrees; and an automatic 15 percent tip is added to the bill. One night, when we didn't realize this, we wound up inadvertently leaving a tip of more than 30 percent. Needless to say, the waiter did not bring this to our attention. At least the menu should warn you of the tipping policy, and anyone leaving a voluntary tip should be reminded that 15 percent has already been added.
The kitchen is very slow at times, and it can be difficult to hail a waiter from the private nooks. But waiters do get into the spirit of the feast, showing you how to scoop salads up with pieces of bread and tear off pieces of chicken pie with your fingers.
The first course is a platter of three salads -- carrot, eggplant and cucumber- tomato-pepper -- garnished with sharp black olives. Wedges of flat bread are the only utensils, which is a little awkward, but forks are available upon request. These salads taste tamed for American palates, light and fresh and much less spiced than at Dar Es Salam and Marrakesh, Washington's other Moroccan restaurants. The second course, pastilla, is the most well crafted of Casablanca's dishes. This chicken pie is flaky with very good phyllo dough, heavily coated with confectioners' sugar and a crosshatching of cinnamon, and savory with a filling of chicken, scrambled eggs and ground nuts. On one visit, the pastilla was dry, but it redeemed itself the next time.
Then come the main dishes, chosen from chicken, veal or lamb, some with sweet sauces such as honey and almonds or dates, others spicy with cumin and hot peppers or lemon and olives. Couscous -- the only course eaten with a spoon -- is also an option. Chicken is the best choice I've found, since the bird -- a whole one for four people -- is steamed until it barely holds together, and melts into its sauce on your tongue. In fact, the best dish of all may be poulets aux e'pices -- chicken with harissa cumin sauce. Harissa is a fiery red pepper paste, so it is for brave palates, but combined with cumin it plays tag with your taste buds, and it is wonderful. Chicken with lemon and olives is gentler and would suit less adventurous palates. I was disappointed, though, that Casablanca uses fresh lemon wedges rather than the Moroccan preserved lemons with their deeper flavor. Veal and lamb are prepared with seasonings similar to the chicken entrees, so this is a mix-and-match kind of menu.
While the red meats are tender enough to be pulled apart with your fingers, they are dry and even crumbly. Only the brochettes were agreeably juicy, though they, too, were on one occasion dry and tasted reheated rather than just grilled. The beef and lamb are also less permeated with their seasonings than is the chicken. Lamb with honey and almonds tasted simply like dry lamb with honey poured over it, and the same was true of veal with lemon and olives (note that the menu refers to the same dishes as veal in French, beef in English). Veal with almonds and eggs was the least enticing of all the veal choices. Plain chunks of meat were sprinkled with almonds and surrounded by sliced hard-cooked eggs, which were nearly impossible to eat with your hands. Couscous, which is steamed semolina, is hardly seasoned, but absorbs the flavors of the vegetables that are cooked with it -- mostly squash at Casablanca.
Dinner at Casablanca is a lot of food. And even if it is not all notable, it is fun to eat, to nibble, to while away an evening. The finales are a bowl of fruit -- tangerines, apples, oranges and the like -- and intensely sweet nut-filled pastry triangles, followed by very sweet mint tea, poured with a flourish from on high.
Casablanca is not a star vehicle. It has more glitter than glamour, and the food is more successful viewed as a full chorus rather than judged solo. It is a production that is sometimes heavy-handed but, even so, is lighthearted fun. ::