It While It’s Hot
Central Ave., Albany, 463-1111. Serving 11-9 Tue-Sat. MC,
price range: $7 (white bean tajine) to $12.75 (lamb
grace under siege
excellent representative of a fascinating cuisine has been
operating for its few months of business on a stretch of the
street not exactly geared to pleasant, unhurried dining. The
question is: Can it survive here?
Casablanca Café owner Sulaymaan Cherif isn’t terribly hopeful.
His restaurant takes up a tiny space that once was a chicken-and-pizza
joint. Nine tables are pleasantly arrayed, with a decorative
wall hanging separating the on-view kitchen space. The tables
themselves are topped with white tile, adorned with decorative
bright-red plates. Moroccan music plays in the background.
But it’s on a block given more to peddling sunglasses and
prepaid mobile phones. There have been instances of panhandling
in the dining room, which discourages repeat business. Although
other ethnically varied restaurants populate the immediate
area, it doesn’t present itself as a neighborhood in which
you’d stroll to explore your cuisine options.
My suggestion, then, is to try this place as soon as possible.
Here you have Moroccan classics like couscous and the clay-pot
preparation known as tajine. Here is the Ramadan-favored
soup called harira, a tomato-based dish with chickpeas
and cilantro ($3).
It’s unhurried and the food is terrific, prepared by Cherif’s
sister, Fouzia Belle, who is always happy to help explain
what goes into each dish. It’s very much like the experience
I had last year while living for a month in Astoria, where
each restaurant visit was like stepping into a different country.
At Casablanca Café, as soon as the conical-topped tajine
is placed before you and the cover whisked away, revealing
a burst of cumin-scented aroma and a colorful array of vegetables,
you’re transported. When I’m doused with the heady scent of
a skillful blend of unfamiliar spices, I’m transfixed. Curries
used to do that to me, until I started toasting and blending
my own mixture of curry spices. Now I merely salivate at its
perfume. In Moroccan cuisine, one of the most-used blends
is called ras el hanout, which translates as “best
of the shop,” as it comprises 10 to 100 of the storekeeper’s
better spices, carefully selected, toasted when necessary,
and blended into a dry, aromatic powder. Ingredients could
include ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns and
turmeric, as well as more exotic items like galangal, ash
berries and belladonna leaves.
Although the cuisine has a reputation for spiciness, no challenging
heat made its way into the food I sampled. Chef Belle presents
what looks like an impressively straight-ahead version of
traditional cooking, although her brother assured me that
she doesn’t mind experimenting a bit here and there. Take
a dish called rfissa, for example. It’s not on the
regular menu, and takes quite some time to prepare, but I
got a taste of what’s traditionally a celebratory meal. “We
serve it in Morocco seven days after a child is born,” says
Cherif. It’s usually pictured as chopped chicken served on
a savory crepe with lentils, but Belle restyled it into a
whole chicken breast placed atop the pancake with almonds
and cabbage worked in with the lentils, all of it radiating
an amazing attar of unexpected sweetness.
At the heart of the menu are couscous and tajines,
both stews served in clay pots. Couscous is made from semolina
rolled in flour, and the little grains are steamed into a
fluffy accompaniment to vegetables and meat. Veggies alone
make for a $7.50 dish; add chicken ($8.50), beef ($10) or
lamb shank ($12.75). The beef variety included shredded stew
beef layered at the top center, itself topped with cabbage
and sweet fried onions. Around the perimeter were slices of
potatoes, squash and carrots, all of it decorating couscous
yellowed with saffron. Flavors were light but concentrated
so that each individual item seemed enhanced by the preparation.
The tajine offers rice as its grain, served in a decorative
mound. Two rice flavorings are available: a savory mix with
onions, or one that’s sweetened with raisins and apricots.
Each tajine styling features such a broad range of
flavor that I’d be hard pressed to recommend a particular
rice. Lentil or white bean tajines are $7 apiece, so
we’re talking profoundly economical. A vegetable array ($7.50)
includes carrots, potatoes, string beans, peas and olives
in a clear but tangy broth. Other ingredients include beef
($9.50), chicken ($8.75), fish (salmon or tilapia, $8.50),
lamb ($12) and a unique preparation of meatballs finished
in a tomato-garlic sauce, topped with a fried egg ($7.50),
which was particularly enjoyable, especially when mixing the
olive-enhanced rice with the stew’s liquid.
Although kebabs are listed in the appetizer or “from the grill”
category, depending on the menu you consult, they’re good
for an entrée—with $7 getting you chicken, beef and/or kafta
(a ground beef patty) served with grilled tomatoes, onion
and peppers over rice. An all-veggie version also is available.
I’m used to lentil soup that shows its beans. Here the soup
($3) is a not-too-thick purée that gets dusted with ground
cumin before serving. Other before-the-entrée attractions
include the traditional zaalook ($3.25), with eggplant,
peppers and tomatoes in a sauté with garlic, cumin and parsley;
charmola ($3), a simple salad of steamed carrots that
get intensified with garlic and cilantro and my favorite of
the bunch, cherifiya ($2!), a dish of garlicky tomatoes
with pickled peppers and lemon.
Enjoy some of the area’s best baklava ($2) to finish, where
the pastry is rolled small and includes coconut and almonds.
Now it’s up to you. Try the place, soon.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Day Nursery’s 11th
annual fundraising event, “A Little Bit of Jazz
& More,” will take place from 5:30 to 8 today
(Thursday, April 29) in the Fenimore Gallery at
Proctors Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady).
The “more” part of the proceedings includes a
cornucopia of food, including a carving station
with turkey breast and roast beef, a pasta station,
an hors d’oeuvres display and, if you don’t want
to fetch your food, circulating trays with even
more hors d’oeuvres, including sesame chicken,
a Mediterranean artichoke tart, shrimp Wellington,
spanakopita and more. There will be complimentary
beer and wine and Chocolates by Lindt. The jazz
part is a performance by Colleen Pratt and Friends.
The event includes a benefit drawing with a choice
of a $500 gift card at either Town TV or Empress
Travel, and gift baskets sponsored by the Schenectady
Day Nursery Board of Directors. Reservations are
$50 per person or $100 for honorary committee
status, and may be made by calling Jim Kalohn
at 894-6305. . . . Remember to pass your scraps