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.
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.