Justin Fox Burks
Aimer Shtaya's first name means "prince," and it's apt since he presides over his new restaurant, Casablanca, with a benevolent sense of command. Shtaya previously owned Casablanca Café in Cooper-Young, and now he seems thrilled to present his Middle Eastern cuisine, along with Greek- and Moroccan-influenced dishes, to a new audience in the heart of East Memphis.
The restaurant is located in a fairly plain strip of shops on Poplar, and inside, the walls are the color of a terra-cotta pot that's been gold-leafed, and a few beaded sconces and photographs give the space personality. The décor is a scaled-down version of the intricate design elements at the restaurant's former Midtown iteration. The small lounge area is a comfortable space, and the wall of imported-from-Jerusalem olive oil bottles and treats for sale is tempting.
My first visit to Casablanca was for a weekday lunch. When I spotted "Best Tea in Memphis, Hot or Cold" on the menu, I realized the gauntlet had been thrown. Being the iced-tea obsessive that I am, I had to see if I agreed with such a bold statement. The pale-salmon colored beverage, honey-sweetened and flavored with sage and ginger, really was the most creative and refreshing drink I've sipped in a while. I would come back here just for this amazing tea, I thought to myself; it actually might be the best!
It was difficult to choose just one or two appetizers. The Sultan Mezza Combo seemed a bit pricey at $19, but it allowed us to sample many things — hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, and stuffed grape leaves — and turned out to be a highlight of our meal. Fried pita strips came in place of tabouli, which usually is included in the combo. The hummus — puréed chickpeas lightly spiced and drizzled with olive oil—was a favorite. The baba ganoush, a roasted eggplant dip, boasted a not-overpowering level of rich smokiness. The small bites of falafel, ground chickpeas and parsley formed into balls and fried, surprised us; they were an herbal bright green inside a crispy dark-brown coating. The stuffed grape leaves, shiny with olive oil and packed with rice, added an appealing new flavor to the appetizer platter.
The Greek Salad featured feta cheese and olives and provided a straightforward transition to our entrées, but the shrimp in our other selection, the Seafood Chef Salad, looked a bit undercooked. Once we gave our server a heads up, she whisked away our plate and had the kitchen make another salad with grilled shrimp.
For our lunch entrées, we went the casual route and tried two sandwiches. The Beef and Lamb Shawarma sandwich, with its thinly shaved, marinated, and rotisserie-grilled meat in a pita pocket, was a bit overwhelming simply due to its astounding amount of protein, but its flavor had depth. There weren't many extra distractions except for a light touch of house dressing. (Later on, Shtaya told me that the beef and lamb are butchered nearby in Mississippi and that both are kosher.) The falafel sandwich, deemed the "Big Mac of the Middle East," included a yogurt dressing and iceberg lettuce in pita bread. The falafel had a smooth texture and noticeable creaminess in the middle.
During lunch, we commented on the wonderful sauces, and before we knew it, our server brought out little bows of all the different varieties for us to sample.
For dessert, I decided to order baklava along with an unfamiliar dessert our server said was not available every day. The crunchy baklava, shaped like a small clamshell, was filled with a pistachio and honey filling that tasted freshly made. The mystery dessert, named "Prince" after Shtaya (it's his favorite), was a cloud-light wedge of heavy-cream custard topped with chocolate sauce.
During my next visit to Casablanca for a Friday night dinner, I was excited about trying more of the spectacular traditional drinks. My dining companion enjoyed a demitasse cup of Turkish coffee that was strong and thick; according to custom, the dregs remained in the bottom of the cup. I wanted to sample the "made to perfection" honey lemonade. Sadly, it wasn't available the night I visited.
For our appetizers, we selected a soup and a salad. The tabouli, a cold salad loaded with chopped parsley, small chunks of tomato, and couscous, was refreshing. The lentil soup, blended into a thin broth, was surprisingly light and smooth with a lemony kick.
As I scanned the entrée section of the menu, I was on the lookout for something new to try instead of another beef-and-lamb dish, so I chose The Holy Land Shish Kabob. It featured two skewers of perfectly grilled pieces of chicken over rice, peas, carrots, and currants with a tangy, creamy house sauce. Next was the Vegetarian Platter. It included smallish portions of spanakopita (spinach inside crisp phyllo dough), a cauliflower-and-eggplant casserole, and warm stuffed grape leaves.
The dessert we shared, Fluffy Homemade Chocolate Mousse, was topped with crushed pistachios and had a crunchy French-biscuit layer at the bottom of the dish. It's house-made and rich with an airy texture.
Service is attentive and focused at Casablanca, and during my visits, the owner and each member of his staff relished answering questions and making a connection with customers. During lunch, we commented on the wonderful sauces, and before we knew it, our server brought out little bowls of all the different varieties for us to sample. At dinner, the owner stopped by our table often and asked about the dishes we ordered and our preferences.
Casablanca is such a welcoming place to visit; instantly, I felt valued and appreciated there, and went away better educated about the food I was served. The owner's focused presentation of the cuisine of the Middle East and his willingness to share his joy in what he does make Casablanca a place Memphis should be proud to call its own.