I've passed by the Casablanca location on Poplar many times in my travels - somehow, I always end up on Poplar in Memphis at some point or another - but never had I thought to stop in. I wasn't certain if it was a bar or an Italian joint or a Mexican restaurant or what.
But an assignment for Food Network put it back on my radar, and during my five days of exploring the city, gathering bits and pieces for a story, I marked it down for a visit. It nearly ended my day of shooting.
Why? Because I could not compel myself to stop eating.
You see, Casablanca has three locations. I ended up in the second and I fell in love with the decor. And then there was the most amazing beverage... and moussaka... colored lamps and lush upholstery and who would want to go back out into the bitter cold again with all this around you?
In a city where barbecue is king and fried chicken is lauded, how in the world did this place even come into existance?
It's the beloved dream of a man from Jerusalem - Aimer Shtaya. He started otu about a decade and a half ago with a little place called Moroccan Cafe at the University of Memphis, before moving to the Cooper-Young District and setting up Casablanca. Today, there are three locations of the eatery - the one on Madison that's entranced me, the one I mentioned on Poplar and a third location that's just opened in Germantown.
That wasn't going to happen. The moment I came in (a door that opens on the back hallway of the establishment, I should mention), I was overwhelmed by a cacaphony of enticing scents - in particular, mint, roasting onions, paprika, sage and garlic. Better still, the hallway and the dining room beyond was a welcoming light turmeric yellow, bestooned with thick curtains, with light pouring in the windows and filtering down from above from delicate brass lanterns with colored glass.
I felt like I'd walked into a palace.
My order was taken, and soon this came to my table.
This tall beverage is honey lemonade, and it is glorious. It's fresh squeezed lemons sweetened with honey and augmented a bit with ginger and sage. It was rather sweet, and I took caution in sipping it for fear I'd burst out of sure sugared joy.
Despite the crowd, I did not have to wait long for my moussaka. I did have to wait a while, though, to finish taking all the photos. And while I can't share the exact photo that went into my article, you can see it if you flip through this slideshow.
The aromatic gorgeousness of this hearty bowl was hard to resist. I wanted to just put down my camera and tuck in. Did I mention I'd already done a breakfast story, like an hour before? And while I'd just had a nibble of this and a nibble of that there, I should not have been hungry.
I burst out laughing when I tried it. It was better than it smelled, looked or even felt. It was an all-enveloping mouthful of warm but not too hot contentment, replete with starch and meat and the soft but flavorful sustenance of eggplant, a divine bechamel to meld it all.
My laugh drew my waiter. All I could mumble was "extraordinary" before he nodded and smiled and tended to another table. I suspect reactions such as this are common.
Please understand, yes, I have had moussaka before - usually at the table of a friend. To my best knowledge, it does not exist on any restaurant menu in Arkansas, which is a shame considering our fine complement of Greek, Balkan and Lebanese decendants in the state. This bowlful surpassed even my most humble experiences with the dish.
I loved the combination of styles - the Levantine bechamel accompanied with the chick peas. It gave a little texture difference and definition to what was essentially a Greco-Turkish casserole.
Still, with every bite, I had this patter in my head... "four more restaurants today. Four more restaurants today." Eventually I stopped, begged a box, paid up and escaped, dropping by my hotel to drop off the remainder for potential later consumption.
Casablanca had remained in my mind for some time afterwards, yet it seemed every time I visited Memphis there was some reason I could not go - a gathering had lasted too long, I didn't have it in the budget that week or I had to go get doughnuts instead (yes, that happened. Twice.) But I managed to wrest Grav away from an event we were attending one night to take him along to this cozy house, months later. Parking was horrendous but we found a single spot and made our way in.
He began nodding his head in that way he does when he came in the door, that nod of "hey, this smells pretty good" he gets when we enter a place with anticipation. We were seated at the exact same table as before - which was another blessing, because somehow this particular October evening we were just as chilly as I was back in January.
I hadn't told him what was on the menu, but I knew what he'd order the moment he opened it. "Oh, wow, they have pastitsio!" he murmurred as he looked up to see if I approved. This one time, I had made sure we'd have enough in our tight budget to manage.
Our waiter delivered two sauces with the plate - one spicy, one spicier - that Grav dug and which I dutifully tasted and then ignored. I needed no additional spice.
This time, I had decided on hot tea - what's described by a placard on the table as "the best tea in Memphis," and I was not disappointed. Notes of mint, sage and ginger melded with honey to create what was, for me, an ethereal delight - slightly sweetened tea with a tinge that wasn't felt until it was in the throat, as if its elements were knitting together the rough patches from the cold day into a smooth sleeve. Our waiter this evening noticed my exhuberance in the beverage and kept bringing me more.
Eventually, he brought out our plates - and Grav got to experience the twitchy confusing sensation of eat or shoot first I had gone through. His pastitsio was not much different from my moussaka on the outset - a similar bechamel layer over fine thin noodles in layers with seasoned beef and spices. He did frown at the carrot on top - Grav has never been a fan of cooked carrots - but that didn't deter him from grabbing his fork and then his bowl once I'd shot its contents, diving in and suddenly getting that look on his face, the one of peace and satiation, the one I'd once seen at a Chicago-area Greek family restaurant, when he had a dish of this same name.
He did point out, though, that the fine noodles were a little weird to him. I chalked it up to texture.
Our waiter, undoubtedly noticing my love for the tea, brought me a Styrofoam cupful with lid for the journey back to Little Rock when he brought our ticket. Grav looked over the display of take-home baklava, tea and honey while I settled up. It wasn't in the budget for this trip, but next time, yes, I think some of the take-home goods will come with us.
People have asked me quite a lot about what I like best in Memphis food since my research trip. They ask me for places to visit, and sometimes I send them to Alcenia's or Interstate BBQ or Las Delicias. But for my good friends who enjoy the flavors of the Middle East, I don't even hesitate to share the opulent flavors I enjoyed at Casablanca.
You'll find the location I visited at 1707 Madison Avenue. The location at 5030 Poplar Avenue (suite 7) is closed for renovation at this writing but will reopen soon. And the new location is at 7609 Poplar Pike in Germantown. For more information, check out the website.
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