A restaurant that evokes sitting in a Moroccan cafe overlooking the glittering ocean couldn’t have been a more welcome opening at the end of winter. The heavy carved brass doors of Alphabet City’s Casablanca open on a cozy 44-seat space: Light from latticed lanterns hanging from the ceiling glitters off the spiky lines of glass and blue-hued wood paneling the dining room. The restaurant is as much inspired by the film as the city — the massive portrait of the Mona Lisa next to the bar is incongruous unless you’ve seen the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman movie. (They fall in love in Paris).
The small menu would seem eclectic to anyone who hasn’t been to the Middle East. Certain ingredients and flavors are expected — lamb is braised, with caramelized onions and fig jam, on the appetizer menu, then reappears as an entree. But the influences brought in by Asian immigrants also get a spotlight in dishes like the chickpea soup accented by Thai flavors of coconut and cilantro, and there are plenty of other options for vegetarians (but go for the zucchini cakes with a sauce of preserved lemon and yogurt).
The merguez stew was a highlight, surprisingly spicy and not at all greasy, and managed to let its abundant vegetables shine through a thick broth — so warming, I felt like I could walk home without a coat. Usually a rich, earthy dish, the mushroom ravioli was a revelation next to fresh tomatoes and shredded cheese and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, not a truffle in sight.
The cocktail menu, crafted by Artemio Vasquez (Pegu Club, Pio Pio), leans heavily on citrus and fresh herbs. Cleopatra cucumber gimlet just walked the line of tartness, while the Bogart mint sour balanced out lemon and orange with the more assertive Maker’s Mark.
One gripe: Casablanca offers hookahs, but the ventilation system doesn’t keep the candy-flavored smoke from wafting. Keep it to the basement lounge, Fes Down, which should open within the month.
189 E. Third St.
Open all week, noon-4 p.m., 5 p.m.-4 a.m.