by Lesa Griffith

Romance the Casbah at Kailua’s intimate eatery, Casablanca.

YOU’VE HIT EVERY TALKED-ABOUT RESTAURANT IN TOWN FOR THOSE SPECIAL TETE-A-TETE DINNERS, AND HAVE DOWNED MORE ‘ahi tartares and house-cured charcuterie plates than you care to remember. as valentine’s day approaches, it’s good to know there is an off-the-beaten-path alternative where you can spice things up-casablanca, o’ahu’s only moroccan restaurant. walk through the door of a little blue wood house on a kailua side street and you’re teleported to a world cocooned in blue-and-white wall rugs, with pillow-strewn banquettes, leather poufs, and low-to-the-ground inlaid wood tables (all from morocco) setting a scene ripe for canoodling.

The cultures of north africa and the middle east are some of the most sensual in the world-think scheherazade and her one Thousand and one nights, aromatic spice markets, intricately woven silk carpets, kohl-rimmed eyes, and cafés serving steaming sweet mint tea. it is a world heady with romance and for a night you can immerse yourself in it, on a humble scale, at casablanca, where classic moroccan dishes are fragrant with cardamom and cinnamon. owners (and brothers) m’hammed and abdelfettah benali, veterans of the international hotel circuit, opened casablanca in 1994 and they keep people coming back with their exotic flavors and affordable prices. lounging on the low couches with arabic music playing in the background, sharing a bottle of wine (casablanca is byob-pick up the vintage of your choice from conveniently nearby kalapawai café), is the perfect scenario for making googly eyes at each other. dinner is a prix-fixe bargain-for $37.50, you get a four-course dinner along with a sort of mini spa treatment. it all starts with a cleansing ritual-the server brings an ornate silver moroccan basin to your table. as you hold your hands over the basin, warm orange-blossom-scented water is poured over them from a silver pitcher. wash well-your fingers are your utensils for the meze plate-an assortment of dips and salads-to come. use the thick triangle of bread to sample tabouleh (parsley and bulgur salad), baba ganoush (smoky grilled eggplant purée), hummus (chickpea purée), stewed vegetables, and marinated carrots. you sip the accompanying tomato-lentil harrirah soup right from the bowl. next comes b’steeya, morocco’s famed meat-in-pastry dish. traditionally made with squab, at casablanca it features seasoned minced chicken wrapped in a frisbee of phyllo and sprinkled with powdered sugar. it’s a delicious, flaky mess that straddles the line between appetizer and dessert.

you have to pry yourself from your love bubble only once-to choose an entrée from a list of moroccan greatest hits such as couscous royale; variations of lamb tagine (a whole slow-cooked shank) sweet with prunes and honey or savory with eggplant; pan-fried calamari with garlic, capers, and tomatoes; and cornish hen roasted with preserved lemons and onions. for an additional $5.25 you can get the house special: rack of lamb.

The benalis originally hail from the coastal city of rabat, so the seafood dishes- shrimp, fish chermoula (resonant with coriander, parsley and lemon) and squid are a good bet. If you like spicy be sure you get a side of the house-made harissa, Morocco’s ketchup, except made with dried red chilies. (Cooking runs in the family-their cousin, Abdelhadi Rih, works in the kitchen of San Francisco’s famed Aziza restaurant. And when Aziza’s celebrity chef Mourad Lahlou was a college student, he worked as a waiter at the Richmond District restaurant Mamounia, owned by the Benalis’ uncle.)

Dessert is a plate of chabbikia, a funnel cake dipped in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A symbol of your sweet surrender?

Dinner ends with another pleasant dousing from the silver pitcher, and glasses of sweet, minty tea. It’s poured with a ~ ourish by the server-he elevates the teapot so it streams a couple of feet, cooling as it makes its way to your glass.

While Casablanca is a romantic getaway any time of year, come Valentine’s Day the restaurant features a belly dancer and special $45 menu that includes couscous royale, ° sh, and rack of lamb.

Arabic culture has been as famed for its hospitality through the ages as that of Hawai’i-maybe that’s part of the reason the King of Morocco vacations in the islands and initiated the “His Majesty King Mohammed VI Week” on O’ahu in late last year. And for a couple of hours you can experience that welcoming hospitality at Casablanca.

19 Hoolai St., 262-8196