The bastilla king is back
King’s bastilla has to be one of the craziest things I’ve ever eaten. A specialty at Kasbah, it looked like a flying saucer constructed out of phyllo dough. It was stuffed with a mix of chicken, almonds, cinnamon and eggs, then was dusted with sugar and splashed with rosewater. The flavors took off in so many ways at once I could hardly keep track of them all. I didn’t even know if I liked it, but I kept eating it.
Longtime Albuquerque diners will probably be excited to know that Ridha Bouajila is behind this famous Moroccan dish (also spelled b’steeya, bastila, pastilla, and on and on), the chef who helmed the kitchens at Marrakech and the Mediterranean Café. This is his fourth Albuquerque restaurant. Of the three previous, two were named Marrakech.
His new restaurant is in the space on east Central that’s housed a lineage of short-lived restaurants, most recently Guicho’s Mexican. The setting is intimate. Shades on the windows help create the feeling of a hideaway. I’ve seen several people there on what appeared to be secret dates.
My favorite dish at Kasbah, indeed one of my favorite dishes in town, is the moussaka. It’s a dish I’ve rarely appreciated. I only ordered it to see what Bouajila’s version was like, and its heavenliness caught me completely off guard.
Moussaka is a little bit like Greek lasagna, with potatoes instead of noodles. Here, ground beef, eggplant and potatoes were layered with tomato sauce and smothered in a puffy béchamel sauce. It was almost soufflé-like and had an ethereal hint of nutmeg. The piece wasn’t huge, which turned out to be a good thing. It was very rich, and there was no way I would be able to stop eating it, no matter how much there was. After it was gone, I turned my attention to the big, beautiful Greek-style salad that accompanied the moussaka, dressed with lemon, olive oil and oregano.
The menu is dominated by tagine and couscous dishes, of which the tagines are more impressive and the couscous more food for the money. One couscous order could easily fill the bellies of two clandestine diners.
A tagine featuring a bone-in lamb shank was visually striking, with a large hunk of spoon-tender meat barely clinging to the bone. The shank’s thick gravy impregnated the accompanying sliced carrots and zucchini. It was a good sauce, but it felt like it needed a kick. The waitress brought me a little dish of harissa—a paste of garlic, red chile, cumin, coriander and other spices. Not much could have further improved that dish.
I only ordered it to see what Bouajila’s version was like, and its heavenliness caught me completely off guard.
Other highlights were the lemon chicken tagine, prepared with housemade preserved lemons, and the soup du jour, a thick bulgur and chickpea chowder with a tomato and chicken base.
While Bouajila’s primary areas of culinary expertise are Morocco and Tunisia, many other Mediterranean cuisines are represented. The dolmas melted in my mouth. The creamy hummus bore a few streaks of unmixed tahini—intentional or not, I liked it. Dill permeated the spinach filling in a side of spanakopita, which was neither too salty nor too cheesy, and was beautifully presented with a dusting of parsley. The lamb/beef gyro sandwich was incredibly tasty and, at six bucks, a good deal. It’s worth pointing out that Kasbah’s falafel are pan-fried rather than deep-fried, which some will praise and others will protest.
For all its tasty treasures, the only meat on the menu that earns the Locovore stamp of approval is in the lamb couscous and non-shank lamb tagines, which are made with halal meat.
“With halal, and with kosher, the way you treat the animal is way better,” Bouajila told me. “You bless the animal before they butcher it. I don’t know if anyone else but Muslims and Jews do that.”
He says he wishes all the meat on the menu could be halal, but like all restaurateurs, he has to balance the quality he wants to serve with what he thinks customers will pay for. He can do halal anything with advanced notice, and he’s even considering a parallel menu where people can pay more for the good stuff. While the halal he’s currently rocking at the Kasbah isn't where he'd like it to be, make no mistake: The king of king’s bastilla is back.