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Casablanca needs improvement, if our two visits are any indication

I know the management of Casablanca Bar and Grill can do better than this. After all, the people behind Casablanca own a couple of Tucson's better Middle Eastern/Mediterranean restaurants--places I've enjoyed, places that are listed in our exclusive Chow Scan listings.

But after two visits, I feel secure in saying that Casablanca, as it stands now, is in need of some serious improvement.

Garrett and I first visited Casablanca on a recent Friday evening. Casablanca occupies one of the most potentially beautiful spaces in all of Tucson: the old mansion at Franklin Street and Stone Avenue, the former home of the Rocky Mountain Oyster Club. The main dining room features large, beautiful rugs; a high ceiling with a wooden cross pattern; vines painted on floor-to-ceiling columns; and a large mural along the southern wall. The décor is heightened with tablecloth-covered wooden tables and chairs. This is a nice place.

The problem is, management wasn't paying very much attention on this particular evening. When we first arrived, no music was playing overhead. Several minutes after we were seated, someone turned on Middle Eastern music--at a volume that was too loud for the three occupied tables in the large, open room. This music came from a CD; we know this, because the CD started skipping. This continued for almost three minutes until a server finally wandered in and noticed.

Then there were the lights. Someone apparently decided that the lights were too bright, so he turned them down, using a dimmer switch in an adjacent room we could see through a window. A couple of minutes later, someone else came in and turned the lights back up. Then, the first person came in and turned the lights back down. And then someone turned them back up.

At this point, I started to snicker. I told Garrett: "If this keeps going on, I may not be able to contain myself."

It kept going on. Thankfully, I managed to contain myself as a man walked in and turned down the lights--not using the dimmer switch in the adjacent room, but by pulling a string hanging down from a light fixture. Then he went into the adjacent room and turned them down further with the dimmer switch. A few minutes later, someone else--you guessed it--turned the lights back up.

I haven't said a word about the food yet, because our dining experience was so dominated by the lights, the overly loud music and the skipping CD. It was a mess--and I haven't even mentioned that a salsa band was playing in the courtyard, so every time someone opened the front door, salsa music blared past the bar and into the dining room.

Another reason I have not mentioned the food yet is that it was rather forgettable. Casablanca has an extensive menu, offering shish kebab meals, shawarma dishes, Moroccan entrées, Jordanian specialties, tagen, lamb, falafel, gyros and other Middle Eastern standards. We decided to split the hummus and grape leaves as appetizers (each $5.95); Garrett chose a Jordanian dish for his main course: the kafta be tahini (ground lamb and beef with garlic, onion, parsley and herbs, all baked in tahini sauce, $15.95). I picked a Moroccan dish: the couscous stew with chicken ($12.95).

During the CD-skipping mess and the light show, we enjoyed some fantastic drinks from the polite, if occasionally confused, servers: Garrett ordered a Casablanca sunset ($6), while I got what one of the servers described as a house specialty, a blueberry mojito ($5). The bartender knew what he or she was doing: Garrett's sunset was a fruity treat, and my mojito was a revelation. The drinks proved to be a highlight.

The other highlight was the hummus. Garrett's not a huge fan of hummus, but even he conceded that Casablanca's version was tasty as he dipped the warm, soft pita bread into the chickpea, lemon and garlic concoction. It was fantastic. On the flip side, the four grape leaves were almost completely flavorless. The accompanying tahini sauce was good, but it didn't come close to salvaging the dish.

Our entrées were not bad, but not special. My couscous stew was decent--highlighted by large, tender chicken-breast chunks and fresh vegetables including potatoes, carrots, onions, chickpeas and non-pitted kalamata olives. It was like comfort food, but all the flavors were pretty earthy and flat. Garrett's kafta tasted like a glorified hamburger patty, topped with a yogurty tahini sauce and sitting in a disconcerting amount of grease. The herbs and spices in the baked lamb-and-beef mixture didn't seem to add much. He summed it up thusly: "We're paying $15.95 for salisbury steak."

We decided to split a piece of baklava for dessert ($2.75). When the pastry arrived, we cut it in half; I enjoyed my portion, thanks to the nice flavors of honey, cinnamon and nuts. Garrett didn't enjoy his half as much--because the bottom of his side was burned.

Maybe Casablanca was just having a bad night. We decided to return for another dinner visit.

That visit was not to be. We arrived on a recent Tuesday evening. One woman was sitting at the bar; nobody else was to be seen. Finally, a young man walked out and informed us that the kitchen had closed.

This was surprising, considering that Casablanca's Web site states the restaurant is open until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday. I looked at my watch; it was 7:50 p.m.

I explained my surprise; the man said the kitchen closes early sometimes, depending on business. That makes sense ... but more than two hours early? That doesn't make sense.

Garrett and I decided to eat at the Cup Café instead, where there was a 10-minute wait for a table.

Casablanca has a lot going for it, not the least of which is its fantastic building. But after our two experiences, I'm convinced management has a lot of work to do.

More by Jimmy Boegle

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