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Counter culture: Blu Basil Café and Casablanca Cafe

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Let's face it. The high life has definitely hit the wall in Charlotte. While I don't see a lot of hand-wringing, I also don't see a lot of shopping bags -- and I don't mean that in a callous way, either. A tip of the toque to any entrepreneur, restaurateur or chef trying to make a go of establishing a new restaurant right now.

Two counter service eateries have recently opened in established neighborhoods: Blu Basil Café in Cotswold and Casablanca Café at the University.

Before opening Blu Basil Café in February, owner Nathan Wachob, an almost-native (minus three years) Charlottean, owned a few Subway franchises. His new endeavor is an uncomplicated, counter service spot focusing on healthy choices at friendly price points. Tables are filled with families -- many of the kids don athletic uniforms and the families seem to be coming right after a game or practice. One curly-headed toddler dredged her fingers lazily through her cup of yogurt while her mother was cutting her brother's meal.

Blu Basil's digs had originally been built out by a fast casual concept and still looks much the same with a rock fireplace on one wall. Quieter seating is away from the open kitchen and the self-serve drink machine.

The focused menu has an Italian bent with fork-twirling pastas and pizzas, but not exclusively, even in the same dish. The ample antipasto plate has Italian meats with a thin slice of Spanish Manchego cheese and served with a cup of whole grain mustard. The mild-mannered sun-dried tomato feta dip is fine, but undistinguished.

While the chicken and prosciutto panini was perfunctory, the menu is somewhat limiting to the choice of sandwiches. There are 15 signature sandwiches, but these range from a meatball sub to a black bean burger. In other words, if you go for a panini, you will only have a choice between a chicken panini or a roasted Portobello panini. But the burger earns its place and has the swagger of medium rare embraced tightly by a toasted Kaiser roll. Sandwiches are offered with a choice of fresh fruit -- a cup includes blueberries, cantaloupe and pineapples -- or housemade fries. Salads are bright-tasting: an uncomplicated organic salad shimmered with a light vinaigrette. For dessert, housemade gelato is offered. For now, Blu Basil does not serve alcohol, but it does have a coffee bar and smoothies.

Prices for sandwiches range from $6 to $8; pastas are under $11; 10-inch pizzas are under $9; and the kids menu is $4 for lunch and dinner, $5 for breakfast.

Blu Basil has recharged the family fun Cotswold once radiated.

Owner Sam Roussi opened Casablanca Café in the space which once held Chaat 'n' Chai. Not much has changed -- not the orange paint on the walls nor the seating. The dining area is as spare as a stage for Beckett. I admit I was expecting something -- maybe not Rick's, but something with the feel of the Kasbah and hoping for the heady aroma of the souk with the mysterious and exotic spice blend ras el hanou in the air.

Entrée specials are offered on a nightly basis -- fish; paella; kafta, chicken and lamb tagines -- but I went for the Moroccan national dish: couscous. Again, I was disappointed. Large cuts of chicken seemed abandoned by flavor and merely sided with overcooked vegetables. The dish needs an element of heft.

But the strengths at Casablanca are the street food items. The humble falafels are impressive, tasting very North African, precisely fried with a lush interior. Casablanca does offer a few glimpses into Moroccan cuisine, what cookbook authority Paula Wolfert considers one of the great world cuisines. The griddled flatbread rghaif, a cross between a crepe and Indian paratha, arrives hot and is eaten with honey and served with mint hot tea in a traditional handleless glass.

Chicken bisteeya (on the menu as bastilla), which is typically made with pigeon, is tissue-thin buttery phyllo wrapped around a chicken mixture with eggs, onions, almonds and parsley, then sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. This seems more like food bought at a souk for dessert than a dinner starter.

Most entrees are under $10 and sandwiches are $7. The menu tries to hit all palates with Greek gyros, American burgers and the ubiquitous falafels, but it's the rghaif that will have you drifting dreamingly, yearning for more.
 

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