3 Star Restaurant (our ratings)
Fun decor but bland food and no central master vision to the place.
Review by Johnny Monsarrat
The first things you notice about Casablanca are the murals of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman: and yes, it’s about the movie, the 1942 classic.
Sari Abul-Jubain, the owner, is a dynamic man who is clearly proud of the place. He gives me the full tour and it becomes the longest conversation I’ve had with a restaurant owner. He grew up in Syria and came to Boston in 1971 as waiter and bartender at Casablanca, which was founded in 1955 in the basement of the Brattle Theatre by the same owner as just a bar.
Sari took on a money partner and bought the place in 1976. The murals by David Omar went up starting in the 1980s. Casablanca is dark and upscale, and with the murals its a great setting for romance. And yet, the intimate atmosphere is not standoffishly upscale. It’s comfortable. Sari says that he did not want an upscale restaurant, but a damn good one that could be attractive to people from all walks of life.
I’m more than a little surprised to find that this is not a Moroccan-themed restaurant using the movie as marketing. The movie is the theme, making the restaurant a bit of a Disneyland, a work of the imagination. The main chefs are Italian and Columbian. Sari called it first a Continental restaurant, and then Mediterranean: in other words, anything. They don’t try too heavily for a Mediterranean feel, and change the menu to suit the season. Although Sari assures me that the focus is on the food, I suggest perhaps the focus is on the atmosphere, and he says that too.
The atmosphere is fun. As well as ample seating, there’s an open bar area, and Sari takes on the role of “the mayor”, socializing and introducing people. It’s a cocktail party atmosphere with chair bar stools that aren’t fixed so you can move them into groups. Still, I don’t sense a master plan, or perhaps I just don’t “get it”. This place would be perfect for live music, perhaps a piano, which would fit the Casablanca theme. But they don’t host live music, and the jukebox isn’t used much.
Sari gives me a tour of the kitchen, which features a smoker oven. Barbecue is not grilling, he tells me. Barbecue is cooking slowly under indirect heat with wood or charcoal, for 10-12 hours. His vision is to build out the barbecue portion of their menu, and become known for takeout as well.
The menu, which has a substantial wine list, runs the gamut from cheap to expensive, and I sample quite a few items. The Sari’s lamb cooked barbecue style, has a “pulled” consistency that’s extremely tender, and juicy without being greasy. The best was the flat bread pizza. They make our own dough and add caramelized onion and unusual toppings you won’t find in a pizza shop. It’s flavorful and has a minimum of cheese on the flat bread, letting the tastes come through.
They also serve chickpea fries, which are not sticks but wedges. They have a crisp exterior but a soft interior, like mashed potatoes, and served with a cream dip. It’s distinctive. Most of the dishes seem to follow this formula of a bland central piece with a zesty side or dip: the Turkish meze plate, the deviled eggs, and the lamb ribs, for example.
I spoke with the chef who confirmed that I’m not imagining things. Yes, there’s nothing spicy on their menu and it could be called bland. There were interesting elements, but nothing mind-blowing. To me it feels like a restaurant built by experience and patchwork rather than being the deliberate end product of a master restauranteur with a compelling vision. I recommend it to you as a bar with great space and a full menu. But as a restaurant, it resembles its origins, put together as though on a whim by a guy who liked a movie.
40 Brattle Street, Cambridge MA
Monday – Saturday, 11am-9pm