When I included the new Moroccan place in Costa Mesa called Casablanca The Restaurant in my weekly blog roundup of new eateries a few months ago, I had no intention of reviewing it. It was previously another Moroccan restaurant, one that I’ve featured numerous times in these pages. Although it changed hands, from what I saw of Casablanca’s menu, it looked as if it served the same kind of meals I remembered having at the old establishment. In the restaurant biz, this happens all the time. And as a general rule, I never revisit a place when it changes names or ownership because there’s usually nothing new to talk about.
But then something happened with that innocuous post. People affiliated with the old eatery started to comment on it, protesting that Casablanca was “trying to create the impression that it is the same restaurant” when, in fact, it was a “totally different business.”
Those comments made me curious. If it were truly “totally different,” then I needed to know how. So I drove there one Saturday night and immediately noticed the first important difference: Parking was now on a free, self-park lot. At the old place, $4 valet parking was the only option. Also, the entrance to the restaurant was no longer at the front, facing Newport Boulevard. It was now on the side of the building through what resembled an emergency exit. But as I went through the double doors, I saw the biggest change of all: Gone were the tarps that used to separate sections of the room into a series of Bedouin tents. Now that the dining area was more open, I could see the belly-dancer as she shimmied from one end of the packed restaurant to the other.
That belly-dancer—a Shania Twain lookalike—was the same person I remembered from my last visit to the old place. And as I found my seat, she was teaching her moves to a little girl, who was herself dressed in a sequined belly-dancing costume. The girl’s parents and grandparents were overjoyed at the scene, taking videos on their cellphones and clapping along to the rhythmic music. When the grandfather tucked a dollar bill into his granddaughter’s waistband as a joke, they all laughed.
Shortly after, a server came to take my order. Thinking I’d be bothered being around so many families with kids, he apologized and offered to seat me somewhere else. I told him I appreciated the gesture, but I was fine where I was. Watching others have a good time was part of the experience. I mentioned that I’d been coming to the old place for years, also loudly celebrating birthdays and tipping many a dollar bill to many a belly-dancer. But I was curious about the story behind this new place. He told me the previous restaurant closed when the owner passed away. He said that when the new owners took over, they remodeled but also brought back the old crew, even the chef.
The latter was confirmed when I tasted the food. It was familiar but also somehow better than I remembered. The couscous was so feather-light it seemed infused with helium. And for the first time, I noticed there were seven different vegetables in it, which the menu says is for good luck. Each of the vegetables, especially the zucchini and the pumpkin, melted on my spoon. The skewers that came with the couscous were also the best examples of shish kebabs I’ve had in a long time. The steak was well-seasoned and juicy; the chicken breast doubly so.
The lamb leg dripping with honey was, however, the thing to order. It was a spectacle—a whole fleshy hunk excised at the ball-and-socket joint, simmered so long it fell apart on the plate. While saffron and ras el hanout (an Arabic spice blend) complemented the rich flavor of the beast, caramelized onions, dates and a syrupy honey sauce tamed the gaminess.
But the lamb wasn’t the only dish to combine the sweet with the savory. Casablanca, as did its predecessor, offers bastilla, a traditional Maghreb phyllo-dough pastry filled with spiced ground chicken and sliced almonds and finished with a blizzard of powdered sugar and cinnamon. If a Disneyland churro collided with a Disneyland turkey leg, it would taste almost like this.
There were also new things, including the kemiya, a Maghreb sampler platter that included hummus, dolmas, olives, pickles, bourek (an Arabian egg roll) and merguez (a spicy sausage). The plate was served with pita bread so supple I suspected it was freshly made in-house.
As I digested that wonderful meal, sipping mint tea from an ornate, long-necked pot, I realized I agreed with those commenters who said Casablanca is a totally different entity than what it replaced, a restaurant whose name I won’t even mention here. In fact, I think it’s better, and I wouldn’t have found out for myself if they’d said nothing at all.
Casablanca The Restaurant, 1976 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa, (949) 423-7990. Open Sun. & Tues.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. Entrées, $14-$32. Beer and wine.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.