A reservations-only taste of home

For now, Amine Mdidech runs his reservations-only restaurant on his own.
For now, Amine Mdidech runs his reservations-only restaurant on his own. Scott Howes

A reservations-only taste of home

At the top of a narrow, Mediterranean-blue staircase, behind an unmarked wooden door, French-Moroccan chef Amine Mdidech serves dinner to just four tables each night.

Open for two months, Casablanca is currently operating with reservations only. It’s less for the air of exclusivity than as a matter of practicality: Mdidech serves as the restaurant’s host, chef and waiter all at once.

He arrives an hour or two before his diners, to begin preparing the night’s meal. There are always two rotating entrees on offer, often slow cooked with market-fresh ingredients. The chef needs time.

In fact, Mdidech opened Casablanca partially with an aim to slow things down. He says he wants his restaurant to feel like a home. And he greets his guests that way: the chef has an air of formality, but his friendly banter reveals a comfort with strangers integral to his one-man show.

“I wanted something completely different in Phnom Penh,” he explains. “I always felt like [at restaurants in the city] it was just, ‘Give me my money and go away’. I would like a special relationship with my guests.”

Mdidech grew up in Fez – a city famed for its labyrinthine streets and alleyways – and despite taking the larger city’s name, his restaurant seems to retain some of its old-world charm. It occupies a remodelled French-style apartment with a vaulted ceiling and a breezy, wraparound balcony. A dimly lit roof beckons – for the dry season.

Casablanca’s duck tagine.
Casablanca’s duck tagine. Scott Howes

The chef says that, as with the other things, he embarked on the two-year construction project by himself. He had been immediately taken with the space. “The tile reminds me of the tiles of my childhood,” he says.

At the age of 5, Mdidech started learning to cook at home. “My first meal was an omelette,” he laughs.

He later moved in with his grandmother, who he says was a “really famous cook” in Fez. There, he picked up her habits – and some of her recipes. “Today, what I propose in Casablanca, is what I learned from her,” he says.

On the menu one night this week were braised beef ribs slow-cooked with Moroccan spices (his grandmother’s recipe) and cauliflower; and duck tagine, served with pumpkin paste, carrots, raisins and grapes. (The chef notes that he can tweak the menu for vegetarians or allergies.) The meat was remarkably tender and the Moroccan flavour a welcome addition to the Phnom Penh palate.

Before the main dishes arrived, Post Weekend was served seven different starters – black olives, potato salad flavoured with cumin and lemon, and a summer salad with grilled pepper and tomato. And dessert followed: fruit salad accompanied with a seemingly bottomless cup of Moroccan mint tea. The entire experience – excluding wine and cocktails – comes in at $15 per head.

After leaving Fez, Mdidech studied in France and worked in restaurants in Paris. The influence is apparent in his restaurant’s quite comfortable take on fine dining. “The Moroccan food that I make, it also includes my French experience,” he says.

It’s unclear how the reservations-only model will fare – it’s pretty untested in Phnom Penh – but while Mdidech’s line is open, it’s worth the call.

Casablanca is located at #170 Street 278 (near the corner with Street 63) on the first floor. To reserve a table, call 096 672 3660.

MOST VIEWED

  • Proof giants walked among us humans?

    For years a debate has waged about whether certain bas relief carvings at the 12th-century To Prohm Temple, one of the most popular attractions at the Angkor Wat Temple Complex in Siem Reap province, depicted dinosaurs or some rather less exotic and more contemporary animal,

  • New US bill ‘is a violation of Cambodian independence’

    After a US congressmen introduced bipartisan legislation that will enact sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for “undermining democracy” in the Kingdom, government officials and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party on Sunday said they regarded the potential action as the “violation of independence and sovereignty

  • Long way to go before Cambodia gets a ‘smart city’

    Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang will struggle to attain smart city status without adopting far reaching master plans, according to officials tasked with implementing the program. The brainchild of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the smart city program seeks to link up

  • Japan bank buys major stake in ANZ Royal Bank

    Japan's largest bank acquired more than half of ANZ’s shares in Cambodia on Thursday, according to a statement from Kith Meng’s Royal Group. Japan's JTrust Bank, announced that they had acquired a 55% of stake in ANZ Royal Bank. According to a Royal Group