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O. C. LIVE

Bistro Captures Moroccan Spirit, and the Spice Is Right

September 12, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — B'stilla my heart.

B'stilla is the sugar- and cinnamon-dusted pie that is probably Morocco's most famous dish. Actually, it is spelled bastia on the menu at the new Casablanca Bistro, but what's in a name? Talented chef Hassan Haddouch makes a near-perfect version.

Casablanca Bistro has taken over a Pacific Coast Highway location formerly home to Indian restaurants Far Pavilions and Indian Paradise. It is almost completely a family affair, given that Haddouch's wife, Nazha, and brother, Mohammed, are directly involved. Nazha shares cooking chores with her husband. Mohammed is head waiter.

Local fans of Moroccan cuisine already know about Haddouch. He was chef at nearby Marrakesh (itself just a hop, skip and jump down PCH) for more than a dozen years before deciding to strike out on his own.

At first, not wishing to compete directly with his longtime employer, Haddouch called the restaurant Mediterranean Bistro, and served an eclectic menu of French, Spanish and Moroccan dishes. But the concept didn't work, and the chef is now doing what he knows best.

This is an intimate, modest place, not nearly as opulent as most Moroccan restaurants. Windows are covered by dozens of drapes, each one colored either green, red or yellow and embroidered with a design that looks like a giant keyhole. The archway separating the bar from the dining room is intricately carved in a classical Arabic pattern. A trio of tajines, traditional earthenware dishes with conical lids, sit regal and unused, on a center display table.

In fact, Casablanca Bistro's entire format is more casual and less ritualized than that of the typical Moroccan restaurant. The only embroidered cushions here are mounted on the wall; you sit on a chair at a Western-style table. Eat with your fingers Moroccan style if you like, but tables are set with knives and forks, and no waiters come over to wash your hands before the meal.

If you're worried that all the Moroccan atmosphere has been eliminated, don't be. The soft lighting, soulful Moroccan music and persistent attention by the staff is bound to charm and soothe, sure to get you in the mood for Haddouch's wonderful cooking. And what cooking this is, redolent of spice, sensual and richly colored, a cuisine that comes as close to the spirit of its people as any I know.

But with one catch. A few dishes here have been gently Americanized, a pity, because they are so much better in their native states. I had to visit a second time to get the meal I wanted because I knew the chef could do better. He had purposely left the cumin out of his eggplant and tomato salad, and his b'stilla was slipshod, made with a hastily put together chicken-and-egg filling and without its traditional sugar and cinnamon topping.

What actually brought me back was the quality of the main course--lamb with honey sauce. When I saw my perfectly roasted lamb shank, crusted with slivered almonds and topped with fat prunes, it seemed almost too beautiful to eat. The outer edges were expertly browned, and the meat literally fell off the bone, its flavors accentuated by a subtle sauce perfumed ever so slightly with lavender honey.

The next time my meal was perfect because I called in advance and asked for more authentic food.

This is the only Moroccan restaurant I know of where it is possible to order a la carte, but most people choose set menus consisting of soup, salad, b'stilla, a main course, pastry and mint tea. The soup course is called harira, a rich lamb broth drunk from a small, alabaster-colored bowl. Some soups taste heavily of cumin, but this one is mild, flavored with carrot and thickened by lentils.

Next comes a trio of Moroccan salads; cooked carrot dressed in lemon juice and parsley, pureed eggplant and sweet pepper, and a raw salad of chopped cucumber and tomato. The salads are scooped onto squares of hot, yeasty Moroccan bread, studded with white sesame and scented with anise. The bread is irresistible, and the salads cool you down like a ride on a magic carpet.

Two b'stillas followed, both eagerly anticipated. B'stilla is a stuffed pie traditionally made with squab, (chicken is substituted in this country), egg and filo pastry, lightly dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar.

The second time around, Haddouch served his pie with a delicate filling of ground chicken, egg, spices and big pieces of dark chicken meat, all in a soft, buttery crust. He also caters to vegetarians with an amazing vegetarian b'stilla stuffed with rice, almonds and coconut.

There are only a few main dishes here, but all are excellent. Of course there is couscous, the fluffy semolina that is the staple of the North African diet. Here it is served with a medley of vegetables stewed with a choice of lamb or chicken.

Lamb brochettes, qotban in Arabic, come on two long metal skewers, chunks of lean meat marinated in cumin, coriander, ginger and garlic, then flame-broiled. Fresh quail is roasted with saffron and sprinkled with almonds.

And then there is the piece de resistance, poulet m'chermel, chicken with preserved lemon and olives. Simply stated, this is the best chicken dish in Orange County, a magnificently roasted half-chicken thoroughly permeated with pungent lemon and salty green olives from Morocco. Haddouch is a rarity among local chefs--an expert at the oven.

The feast ends with corne de gazelle, which means "gazelle's horn." It's a tiny crescent-shaped pastry with a dense, crushed almond and sugar filling, and the requisite thimble of mint tea.

That shouldn't surprise anybody. It has already been established that this is not the typical Moroccan restaurant. Allah be praised.

Casablanca Bistro is moderately priced. A la carte dishes are $2.50 to $12.95. Set dinners are $14.95 to $19.95.

*

* CASABLANCA BISTRO

* 1520 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach.

* (714) 646-1420.

* 5-11 p.m. daily.

* American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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