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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Get It While It’s Hot

By B.A. Nilsson

Casablanca Café

14 Central Ave., Albany, 463-1111. Serving 11-9 Tue-Sat. MC, V.

Cuisine: Moroccan

Entrée price range: $7 (white bean tajine) to $12.75 (lamb couscous)

Ambiance: grace under siege

This 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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady 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 to Metroland.



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