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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, February 4, 2005

Casablanca offers a taste of Morocco in Kailua

By Helen Wu
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Dining at Casablanca's in Kailua was, for me, an escape to the Casbah where I could play out Valentino-like scenes from "The Sheik" with my beloved. But I wouldn't be surprised if others feel the same way there, no matter if they are just a couple or in a large group.


• 19 Ho'ola'i St., Kailua

• 262-8196

• Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 6 to 8:30 p.m.


• Minimum charge per person is $29.75; $15 for children 6-12

• Reservations recommended

• Limited parking in front; street parking


The restaurant looks unassuming from outside, but enter and you will find yourself in another realm. Casablanca's suppers are no ordinary event, but instead a titillating occasion that fulfills "Arabian Nights" fantasies of eating Moroccan cuisine in a Saharan tent.

Patrons are treated to a genuine experience that demonstrates the hospitality for which Moroccans are known. In this setting, food almost becomes a lavish gift bestowed upon guests rather than an average, night-on-the-town meal. At Casablanca you will encounter some of the rituals associated with eating found in other parts of the world. Sharing this aspect of dining with your special someone will make for a truly memorable date.

As my party of four walked through the threshold of the dining room, we stepped from Hawai'i into North Africa. A comfortable wraparound couch ringed the area with several low, round wooden tables set before it. Leather poufs mushroomed up offering added seating. A sizeable Persian rug covered the open floor space in the room's middle — perfect for the graceful movements of belly dancers hired privately by some patrons for special occasions. Filigreed Moroccan lanterns cast an enchanting glow completing the scene.

Casablanca Restaurant patrons, from left, Brian Kalahiki, Cindy Keliikuli-Grace, Henry Keliikuli-Grace and Sandra Kalahiki partake of a salad the age-old Moroccan way — with their fingers.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Rack of lamb is one of Casablanca's premier entrées. The restaurant's set meals cover a full range of dishes.
Our magic carpet ride began with a ceremonial washing of hands. A waiter provided us with terry cloth napkins, more like hand towels, which we found a bit puzzling. We took turns as he poured warm water from a silver ewer over our hands into a basin below. The napkins made sense as we dried our hands and prepared to dig in with our hands — the custom is to use just the thumb, forefinger and middle fingers of the right hand. Those who feel naked grabbing food with bare hands can request utensils, but I think nothing beats this age-old method for a very sensual take on the usual.

Moroccan cuisine is absolutely sexy in its intoxicating use of spices. Its cooking history has a long list of influences: Arabic, Moorish, Turkish, Berber, African and French. The food is luxuriously redolent of flavors that dreamily conjure up mysterious, far-away lands. It can be described as spicy, smoky, sweet and most of all seductive. Many ingredients used in its recipes are said to be aphrodisiacs — honey, ginger, saffron, cardamom and pepper among them.

Casablanca features a standard prix fixe menu for $29.75 with a choice among 12 main entrées of seafood, poultry or lamb. A varying house special entrée for $35 is also offered. All of these set meals include a full course of accompaniments, which add up to a banquet of dishes.

Bowls of soothing harira soup subtly introduced the complexities of Moroccan cuisine. Although it is a common dish, it is traditionally served in the evening during Ramadan, a holy period for Muslims, to break their fast. Made with tomatoes, lentils and/or chickpeas, saffron, parsley and coriander, it also is regarded as a liver and stomach cleanser. It intrigued our appetites with a refreshing piquancy that wasn't heavy despite its hearty thickness.

Next, a Moroccan salad plate teased our palates with its multiple juxtaposition of flavors. A Moroccan platter decorated with bold mosaic patterns presented a stunning array of cold selections. Fresh, house-baked bread wedges became a makeshift utensil for scooping up the assortment — creamy hummus dip, light tabbouleh salad, rich eggplant, bright roasted bell peppers, tart tomatoes and flavorful carrots. It was hard to restrain ourselves at this point, despite knowing that more substantial dishes were to follow.

B'stilla (b'steeya), a savory pastry, was deliciously arresting in its combination of textures. A flaky outside, sweet with dusted powdered sugar and cinnamon, deceivingly concealed a soft, hot interior of finely shredded chicken, chopped almonds and eggs.

As if all of this wasn't enough, main entrées arrived soon afterward. Our party of four tried the shrimps mamounia, Cornish hen with preserved lemons and olives, lamb tagine with eggplant and a house special of roasted rack of lamb with couscous. Each dish begged to be finished. We could not resist the temptation to sop up the meat juices of each with the bread. Musts include a couscous dish (tiny semolina pasta resembling rice) and a tagine (ta-SZHEEN; a stew-like dish named for the conical pot in which it is usually prepared).

Though we had no room for dessert, our meal ended with chebbakia, a deep-fried, honey-dipped funnel cake and sweet, fresh mint tea. Both cleared away the tastes of the heavier dishes preceding them. Another washing of hands and a subsequent quick splash overhead of fragrant orange water concluded our too-brief adventure.

My only disappointment was that strains of hypnotic Moroccan music playing in the background soon died out as more patrons arrived and began to converse convivially.

The overall effects of tantalizing food, an exotic setting and fluid service enticed all the senses. Dining at Casablanca will give you a heady rush of passion that will last wherever you go and through whatever you do for the rest of the night.

Reach Helen Wu at hwu@honoluluadvertiser.com.