Casablanca Restaurant on Germantown Parkway is an oasis of calm and comfort in a desert of drive-throughs, convenience stores and a vast strip mall collection that includes everything from churches to furniture stores to wig shops.
And none of these offer what could be the most restorative nonalcoholic beverage in town, a tea blended with sage, ginger and honey. You can order it hot or cold, but summer is upon us, and iced is the way to go for now.
Aimir Shtaya opened the first Casablanca, called the Casa Blanca Café, in Cooper-Young. He closed it and opened about three years ago at 5030 Poplar, and opened this spring at the Germantown Parkway location with partners Isam Showli and Omar Moon.
(While there's a sign at an old garage on Central stating a Casablanca is coming there, Showli says that's not definite.)
This brief history brings us to the food. Straight on, it's this: The food is better at the new location than I recall it being on Poplar or in Cooper-Young. I know Casablanca has had a loyal following -- I get the e-mails and the phone calls -- but over the years I tried it a few times and found the food ho-hum. Not bad, actually, but on the bland side. Just so-so.
Now that I've eaten at the Germantown restaurant, I'll give the one in East Memphis another try.
Most of the food is bursting with flavor. A stellar example is the couscous platter, though with a hunk of lamb shank in the middle of the plate, it might be more appropriately named "lamb shank with couscous."
It's a delicious dish. The shank is fork tender, rich and deeply flavored with warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cumin. Caramelized onions come in the dark pan sauce spooned over the top.
The couscous, specks of pasta just a fraction of the size of a grain of rice, are light and fluffy, tossed with finely chopped cucumber and tomato. (The rice served with other dishes was also good, cooked just right. Sure, it's only rice, but it's worth noting that it's properly cooked because too many places mess it up.)
A menu of sandwiches offers falafel, which is tender inside but with a beautiful tender crunch on the exterior; chicken, beef and lamb shawerma; even eggplant parmesan (there's a small Italian menu that we didn't sample).
Appetizers include a list of the Middle Eastern standards: hummus, which is sprightly and generously topped with olive oil pressed from olives on Shtaya's father's land; baba ghanoush (meh -- a bit light in texture and lacking in flavor compared to other choices); falafel (again, very good); and dolmades, or stuffed grapes leaves. The latter are excellent and very lemony.
Entrees include five Italian selections and about a dozen Middle Eastern dishes such as kabobs, shawerma, a couple of fish choices, and a very good moussaka.
Moussaka is most widely known as a Greek dish, but it is popular, in various forms, in Eastern European, Arab and Mediterranean countries. Casablanca's version seems to be a hybrid, layered like a Greek moussaka but with potatoes as well as eggplant.
A lovely touch is a pool of creamy tomato sauce around the hearty meat (beef in this case) and potatoes dish. The sauce is similar to a cream-based Bolognese sauce, though a bit lighter on the meat and heavier on the cream than a true Bolognese.
It's good enough to make me wonder what else is up with that abbreviated Italian menu.
There was nothing we tried that we didn't like (well, the baba ghanoush could be better, but uninspired doesn't make it bad). Nice touches include strips of pita bread that are fried crisp, the excellent olive oil (available for purchase), and two sauces that come with kabobs and shawerma (rotisserie-grilled meats).
One is mild and one is hot; you'll be told that when the squeeze bottles are placed on your table. Showli delivered them on our first visit and told us which was which. As the red-tinted sauce is the mild one, I asked to be sure. He told me again and I reached for the creamy hot sauce, put a dollop on my plate and dipped a piece of lamb in it.
"It's hot," I said.
He smiled and nodded. "I tell you this twice."
Fair enough. Service was not just friendly but also hospitable throughout both visits.
We purchased a jar of the excellent tea, and Showli gave me a printed recipe for duplicating it at home, then confided a secret for the best result. It comes down to something that we all know, whether from Morocco, Palestine or the American South:
Just add sugar.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Address: 1890 N. Germantown Pkwy., Suite 99.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: Couscous platter ($14); shawerma platter ($12); moussaka ($12); mezze platter (large is $19 and includes more items than the $8 small); tea ($1.95).
Alcohol: Not sold or permitted.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars