Casablanca 354 Grove St. (Bay St.) Jersey City, 201-420-4072
Went over to eat at this Moroccan restaurant last week in Jersey City, a city I had insufficient idea even existed?which spreads itself out over the near plains of Jersey, on the Hudson River, a municipality and a place unto itself, apparently unfazed by its existence in the shadow of lower Manhattan. It's as if?at least for someone whose body and consciousness are bound by and limited to Manhattan and its "acceptable" Brooklyn and Queens appendages?Jersey City's sort of mythical, something you accept the reality of without ever witnessing for yourself. It's a place apart?over there, appropriately on the other side of a bordering, liminal river. But it has its own virtues and realities and problems, and your ignorance of it is, like all the different varieties of ignorance, finally your own problem.
Get out of the PATH train at Jersey City's Grove St., like I did last Tuesday night, and you might experience a new way of existing, a new way of orienting your body in space, and of ordering your mind and its relationship to the physical world around it. I'd descended into a wormhole at the PATH terminus in the stark depths of the World Trade Center and?after tunneling under a river all witched over, apparently, with weird enchantments and spells?emerged in another space and time. It amazes me that sometimes all you have to do is ride public transportation in order to achieve the effect that hallucinogens promise you, but don't deliver: the effect of looking at a brand-new world, of experiencing a new orientation and relationship between yourself and the landscape and, inevitably, time, which is an index of the body's movement over space. Obviously all travel delivers this effect?that's what it's good for, besides crabs (in the less pristine hostelries of South America and Eastern Europe) and dysentery. But it's the more surprising when you don't have to go any farther than the other side of the river to achieve it, nor pay more than the mere dollar that PATH's narrow, hip-crunching turnstiles ask of you.
It didn't hurt that, when I did climb out of PATH's space-warping mechanism of a tunnel at Grove St., two stops into Jersey City, I hunched out into that cold, tumultuous, flooding spring rainfall that the world witnessed that night, when the whole North American continent seemed to rise several inches on the wash that rolled in black torrents down from the Earth's high places (few of which, honestly, are in northeast Jersey?but the gentle, moderate landscape did its best). There you are, standing outside a tube stop in the dead of an abandoned evening, in an unfamiliar town, when falling water is scouring the world and making it clean and empty and ragged, and you don't know where you are. A slum? A warehouse zone? What's the geography entail? What sort of cityscape is being thrown at you?
Where was I? It was the most amazing variety of disorientation, as I stood there under dripping, rustling maple trees in an empty square, huddling under my umbrella. Could have been in Madrid or Cali or Winnipeg or Berlin or Kiev or Minsk?all there was to define reality was a shining blue-black night, and the rain-purified light of streetlights, and old nondenominational tenement facades that betrayed nothing rising up through sheets of water over forlorn and depopulated streets radiating in directions I lacked the experience to identify.
But really where I was heading was to meet New Jersey resident J.R. Taylor and his fiancee Carly Sommerstein at this Moroccan restaurant they'd told me about. Turned a corner and walked through my new world with sheets of rain slamming against my pant legs. I felt like I'd been miniaturized and translated into a diorama, the sort little kids build in order to pine over and imagine living in.
Anyway, another reality?and one in which J.R. and Carly sat alone in a small and warmly lit restaurant on an old corner in a brick city while, outside, the heavens came down. The restaurant's called Casablanca, and it's in an area of Jersey City to which, I find, people are increasingly moving from New York City. It's hard not to imagine that inner Jersey City won't become the new Williamsburg?now that Hoboken's priced like Manhattan and emigrants are starting to drift even into humble Weehawken.
When they do settle into Jersey City, they might as well eat at Casablanca. It was late and the three of us were hungry, so we ordered a bunch of stuff, all of it really good. Chicken and fish tajines, which were both a deep burgundy in color, and rich like beef goulash. God knows what species of fish we were dealing with. I was afraid to ask, suspecting that I'd be told that it was carp or mullet, or something similarly offputting. But it tasted fine, meaty and rich and mellow, smothered in thick, mildly spiced sauce and flaking off in big chunks. The tajines are served, of course, with plates of rice pilaf on the side. The hummus and the chicken kebob are excellent, too. As for the latter, the chicken's charred perfectly on the outside, and there's this unusual and quite wonderful smoky cinnamon/chocolate flavor to the stuff, so it's worth ordering, either on its own or chopped up in a chicken sandwich, which you could probably eat four of if you were the least bit hungry. It's a minimalist sandwich, just the poultry strips and chopped iceberg lettuce stuffed into a straight-up pita, and dribbled with tahini sauce. Hot sauce comes on the side if you want it, and you probably will.
We also consumed some rather daintily toothsome stuffed grape leaves, dribbled liberally with oil; seasoned finely with a dazzling and robust assortment of spicery; firm to the curious finger's prodding; fresh and snappy to the nose, aye, like a new sauvignon blanc, grassy and delightful; pleasing the eye with a charming line, an Athenian proportion; evincing a cheerful, solid thud when assayed with the fat end of a coffee spoon; vernal in their bright green quiddity; correct in their assumptions; delightful in their implications; Euclidean in their geometries; striated with ebony veining like the finest hunks of Italian marble; white like snow, and yet black like night; possessed of an expert snooker player's mastery of the angles; uncanny in their representations; their ricey contents, verily, mushing between the tongue and the palate with a certain coy but yielding coquetry and BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH?
The point is that you can eat a tremendous amount of good Moroccan food here for something under 20 dollars per mouth, a piece of information that could conceivably represent a peg on which to hang a food column, which we'd entitle "Cheap Eats in Jersey City!" or "Jersey City's Rockin' Moroccan!" or something similarly compelling. Or else "Jersey Cool! Inexpensive Moroccan Chow for the City's New Housing Frontier!" Or else, resigning ourselves, we'd simply run the words "If You're Thinking of Living in?Jersey City" like The New York Times would in its commitment to imaginative writing?and that does, actually, seem to sum things up nicely, come to think of it. (What an extraordinary racket this food-writing racket is.) Then we'd stuff our pockets with rocks and drown ourselves in that nasty, poxy, industrially ravaged confluence where the Hackensack River meets Newark Bay, to the west of the terra nova of Jersey City.