DINING OUT: Casablanca

In Bay Ridge, there is a restaurant that evokes dreams of the Moroccan medina, where tiny shops invite passersby with the building blocks of the country’s exquisite cuisine – towering vats of olives, ground spices with dusky colors and tantalizing fragrances, bottles of golden-green olive oil.

That restaurant is Casablanca, where Rabat-born chef/owner Nacer El Makhloufi recreates the culinary specialties of his homeland — tagines of meat and fish with vegetables, kebabs, couscous, and an array of jewel-like salads, all served up to eager diners who know this eatery is a true gem in the neighborhood.

To walk into Casablanca is like being welcomed into the chef’s home, with colorful cushions, warm-colored walls, and a red tapestry rug on the floor, and the smells of the kitchen and the sound of vibrant music rousing all the senses.

To tease the appetite was a basket of hot bread, a small dish of harissa – the classic hot pepper paste of Morocco, which El Makhloufi makes himself from roasted jalapeño with grilled green peppers, and which tasted delightfully of cumin – and a bowl of green olives bathed in olive oil which was perfect for dipping the soft bread into.

On our visit, we sampled five gorgeous salads ($5.95 each) – appetizers that truly awakened the taste buds for what was coming next: hearty, flavorful main dishes whose depth and complexity delighted and satisfied.

On our festive salad sampler were a tart and tender potato salad spiked with shreds of red onion; a salad featuring cubes of cooked beets, sweet and earthy; a chunky, simultaneously sweet and tart carrot salad that was enlivened with flecks of parsley; Zaalouk Salad, a rich puree of eggplant enhanced by a quintessentially Moroccan ingredient – preserved lemon – as well as tart green olives; and the Moroccan Salad, a chopped mélange of tomatoes, green peppers and red onion in a light, tangy dressing.

For a main course, we had to choose between several delicious-sounding chicken, lamb, and seafood entrees. We opted for the Lemon Chicken with Olives ($15.95) and the Fish Tagine (market price).

The chicken was tender and flavorful, in a soupy sauce, served under a nest of fresh, hand-cut fried potatoes – surprisingly, a traditional Moroccan touch – that were big and meaty. The day’s fish was a meaty hunk of baked sea bass, marinated overnight with lemon juice, herbs and spices before being baked the next day and served alongside fluffy couscous and tender carrots, potatoes, and celery.

Dessert was comprised of sweet pastries – a rotating selection that on the day of our visit consisted of strips of dough baked and glazed with honey, fragrant with cinnamon and redolent of sesame seeds ($5).

We enjoyed them with glasses of Moroccan mint tea, which is green tea with orange blossom, sugar, and mint, expertly prepared for us by El Makhloufi, who poured the tea back and forth between pot and glasses the way it’s done in Morocco. It was perfumed, sweet and fragrant – a perfect end to a delicious meal.

While Casablanca has only been open for 15 months, El Makhloufi has long experience in the restaurant business and in Bay Ridge. He said he has been “cooking since I was young, about 13 or 14, sitting with my grandmother,” and had an earlier restaurant in the neighborhood, as well as a clothing store. He had also worked as a chef at Foxwoods Casino.

Cooking is El Makhloufi’s passion. “I like to cook everything,” said the chef, who prepares everything he serves in his open kitchen, from where he greets customers and waves goodbye to them as they leave happy and full.


484 77th Street

Brooklyn, New York 11209


Tuesday to Thursday, Sunday: 2 p.m.-10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday: 2 p.m.-11 p.m.

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