See more photos from Casablanca's colorful dining room and kitchen in our slideshow.
Toward the end of Ramadan, my friends and I planned an iftar dinner at Casablanca Couscous & Grill, arriving a little after 8:30 p.m. on a quiet Thursday night. It's easy to miss if you're just driving past on Richmond, save for the little gravel parking lot and a hand-painted sign on the window that says, simply, "HALAL." A more brightly lit sign faces the street, showing a palm tree and a camel — appropriate symbols for Moroccan food, a cuisine that's equally of the desert.
It's a little curious we don't have more Moroccan food in Houston, considering the breadth and depth of other available cuisines. But Casablanca remains one of only two places in town — Saffron being the other — that serve authentic couscous and tagines.
It was these two items that we were in search of that evening, and they came out in large quantities courtesy of our friendly Moroccan waiter, landing on the table one after another. A pile of pearly grains topped with vivid orange chunks of carrots and stocky cubes of beef, followed by thick lamb shanks braised in plums and caramelized onions, was dazzling my tablemates. We passed them around, family-style, between pouring each other fresh glasses of hot mint tea, which tumbled sweet and dark out of the ornate silver teapots our waiter had placed on the table.
The dining room itself was humming with energy that night. Brick-red walls decorated with Moroccan antiques and jewel-toned lamps reflected the warmth in the room as tables filled with people caught up over dinner, chatting animatedly and eating as eagerly as we were. Other diners seemed just as diverse as our own group, as my Filipino friend pointed out a couple of women speaking Malay and my Lebanese friend told us stories of how she used to request couscous as a child for breakfast.
Her mother, from Senegal, makes phenomenal couscous — or so I'm told. Couscous is just as vital a dish in Senegal, which is just a short trip down Africa's western coast from Morocco, and my friend had been struggling to find good couscous in Houston. Although you'll see it on many restaurant menus, you're not seeing "authentic" couscous served the Berber way, heaped with stewed meats and vegetables and served in massive portions.
The couscous at Casablanca is fluffy and light, with well-defined pearls of semolina bouncing up against one another — never globbing together in a sticky, pasty mess or tasting gritty and undercooked. The Royal couscous topped with lamb, chicken and fat links of kafta that had landed in front of my Lebanese friend had earned her highest marks of approval.
"You have got to review this place," she breathed between huge bites.
And even if Casablanca weren't already serving wonderful couscous and savory tagines, it still bears mentioning for another key reason: It also serves Indonesian food. At Casablanca, the patrons aren't the only multiethnic thing about the restaurant.
Moroccan native Outmane Yanouri opened Casablanca late last year after moving here from Dallas, where his family operates two other popular Moroccan restaurants: Kasbah Grill and Tangiers. (The family is clearly in the habit of giving their restaurants smartly straightforward names: "Hello! This is Moroccan food! Obviously!") But six months ago, Yanouri's wife — who is Indonesian — decided that she wanted her nation's cuisine represented in the restaurant as well. The menu was promptly split in half: Moroccan on two pages, Indonesian on the other.
I'm not so sure this was the best move for Casablanca. It's always a bad sign when a restaurant splits its focus, especially when the two cuisines are light years apart from one another. The fact that both are halal, offering food cooked according to Muslim dietary laws, seems to be the only thing uniting them outside of the bonds of marriage.
It's not that the Indonesian food is bad here; it's simply that the Moroccan food is so much better, that having the two side-by-side on a table only highlights the gap in flavor and presentation between the two. Take, for example, a recent lunch where my dining companion and I split the difference and ordered one of each.
My kafta sandwich was a beast of a thing, especially for only $6, four plump pieces of spiced sausage wrapped in a warm pita. A fine spread of tahini clung to the red tomatoes and the crispy pieces of torn romaine lettuce inside. The beef kafta had that exotic tinge of paprika and cumin and garlic that — when taken together — has the faintest, loveliest salt-tinged taste of sweat.
On the other hand, my dining partner's ayam — Indonesian fried chicken — was the saddest little quarter of a chicken either of us had ever seen. And while I understand that traditional ayam is not exactly the picture of a fat, glistening, rotisserie-style chicken, this ayam was flat-out desiccated. What little meat was left on the bones was good...if you could find any. There were traces of garlic and chile in the skin, but not enough to be even remotely spicy. And it was served unceremoniously along with a dry lump of Basmati rice and a few slices of cucumber.
Even for only $7, it was still an insulting plate to be presented with for lunch: If these few slivers of chicken don't fill you up, snack on some dry rice and a cucumber slice. On the other hand, it could be great if you're on a diet.
I was disappointed. The Indonesian food that we'd had for iftar had been a little better, although we'd ordered only a few appetizers that night: bergedel, potato patties that were good if too greasy, and fried tempeh (tempeh goreng) that desperately needed salt. The bowl of spicy-salty sauce that would normally accompany the tempeh goreng was nowhere to be found. But none of it was insulting.
Still more worrisome than the food during lunch was the service. Gone was the genial waiter who'd taken care of us the week prior — even if he'd forgotten a few things here and there, or was slow to refill our water and tea, at least he'd been there — and in his place was a harried woman, who frequently disappeared into the kitchen for long stretches. I had to hunt her down twice to receive and then pay for my check.
That same harried waitress was there again on my third visit, whom I now understood to be the owner's wife. She remembered me, gave me a broad smile, and I was ready to forgive the bad Indonesian food and the molasses-slow service. She sat me at a table and then — as promptly as she'd done on my last visit — forgot about me until my friends met me 20 minutes later. There were no other diners in the restaurant.
Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" blared from the kitchen as someone hammered loudly and repetitively within the bowels of the restaurant. Perhaps they were trying to fix the non-functioning a/c in the restrooms; one can hope. Al Jazeera played on the large flat-screen TV and Moroccan-esque fans whirred noiselessly overhead while I waited for our waitress to return.
She didn't seem to be cooking the food on either visit, just supervising the kitchen. So perhaps the Yanouris are trying to get those Indonesian recipes up to par. And on this visit, they had improved. An Indonesian salad called gado gado was a hit: crunchy shrimp chips atop a mound of vegetables in a sweet peanut sauce. Ditto the improved tempeh goreng, which didn't require salt this time.
Our order of mee goreng was enormous, and large enough to feed three people. The egg noodles tasted slightly smoky and too salty — clearly salt is still a work in progress here — but there was no trace of spice to the dish whatsoever, a huge letdown for a classic Indonesian dish that nearly breathes out a sweet, intoxicating fire.
And as if to add insult to injury, the one Moroccan dish we ordered that night — a beef tagine — was lifeless and bland, the beef overcooked and the sauce a drab color that reflected none of the vivid saffron it contained, either in taste or appearance. And the mint tea that had been piping hot and sweet during previous visits was oversteeped and lukewarm, filled with grounds. At the end of the meal, I found myself searching for our waitress all over again.
It's difficult to discern exactly how interested the Yanouris are in seriously running a restaurant, if at all. There's a sort of sloppiness in almost every aspect of the place — from the un-air-conditioned bathrooms to the inconsistent service, from the lack of posted hours to the stumbles over basic dishes like mee goreng — that is either endearing or exasperating, depending on your perspective.
It's the kind of sloppiness that shouldn't still be apparent in a restaurant that's been open for nearly a year. But because of how truly difficult it is to find great Moroccan food in Houston, I'm willing to forgive the service and forgo the Indonesian food, if only for Casablanca's wonderful couscous.
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