Dining with Bogart and Bergman
One talent distinguishes the few chefs who are truly gifted from those who are merely fine cooks: imagination. Take something as simple as that...
One talent distinguishes the few chefs who are truly gifted from those who are merely fine cooks: imagination. Take something as simple as that pizza-shop staple, the eggplant parmigiana sub. Several weeks ago, at lunch, I had a gentrified version of this popular pleasure at the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square. Theirs, on grilled rounds of French bread, had paper-thin slices of eggplant fried to perfection, a plum-tomato sauce, and melted fresh buffalo mozzarella. Plus one imaginative leap: chef Ana Sortun included some succulent black Mission figs, whose sweetness, set against the tomato's tart bite, triggered a taste synergy in which the five ingredients played off each other in a medley of contrasts. In my own kitchen, I could have made eggplant parmigiana sandwiches for the next thousand years without thinking to add a fig. Sortun, unlike me, has a foodie's imagination.
Since 1996 she has worked her magic at the Casablanca, a Harvard Square institution that began as a bar in 1955. Décor stays true to the eponymous 1942 film: murals depict Bogart and Bergman; the wicker loveseats remain in place; the restaurant logo is a Sydney Greenstreet caricature; and here, even if a kiss is just a kiss, a slowly rotating ceiling fan is also an allusion.
The dinner menu also pays respects to the film's setting (after all, Rick Blaine was himself a restaurateur), with ample references to Arab and Mediterranean cuisine. The tuna kibbeh appetizer updates a rustic Levantine dish. Casablanca takes its olives seriously: one hors d'oeuvre is simply warm olives, house marinated and slow roasted. The warm goat cheese and green olive combination is fabulous, the delicate flavor of its large Tunisian olives taking the star turn.
Almond-and-ricotta dumplings, pan-fried to a golden brown on each side, exude a sensuous, subtle flavor reminiscent of southern Italy. A gorgeous presentation of grilled halibut, topped by a lemon and fig confit, tasted as marvelous as it looked; its surrounding moat of tiny, wine-braised French lentils had such refined delicacy as to nearly compete with the main event for attention. The rich black figs, moist and sweet, contrasted beautifully with the white, flaky fish. Brown butter added a delightful hazelnut flavor note.
At Casablanca, one can dine wonderfully in comfortable surroundings at reasonable prices. Hors d'oeuvres range from $3.50 to $8; entrées start at $15 for the almond-ricotta dumplings and rise to $23 for a peppered sirloin. The wine list offers more than 30 choices from $25 to $55 per bottle. If you were to drink just one glass of Burgundian Pinot Noir ($6), you could have a three-course meal for about $35 to $40 a person plus tip, and almost surely be surprised by one of Sortun's fresh ideas. The richly creative dining experience may well put you in the mood for a film upstairs at the Brattle Theatre--perhaps Play It Again, Sam.
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