260 Hawthorn Village Commons, Vernon Hills;
Hours: Open for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and for dinner at
5 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$6; entrees, $6.50-$13; desserts, $3.50-$4.
Try: Falafel, Rabat tajine and date rolls.
Tips: Casual. Reservations accepted. Free parking. Lunch specials. Children’s menu. No alcohol, but BYOB is permitted.
In a bite: Tajine Casablanca offers diners a choice of familiar and exotic fare from Morocco and other parts of the Mediterranean region.
Updated: November 11, 2011 12:24AM
Moroccan restaurants are rare in Chicago and practically nonexistent in the suburbs, which is unfortunate, considering how much the rich cuisine has to offer.
One trailblazer doing its best to raise awareness of Moroccan cooking is Tajine Casablanca in Vernon Hills, run by Husan and Mayada Maki. For the last 21/2 years, its kitchen has showcased the refined fare of that North African country.
The restaurant’s diverse menu bespeaks of Morocco’s multicentury interaction with other cultures. Berber, Moorish, Mediterranean and Arab influences all have helped shape its cookery.
Diners at Tajine Casablanca are in for an adventure. While they will encounter some familiar Mediterranean dishes, including hummus, tabbouleh and baba ghanoush, they also will discover others that are more exotic, like zaalouk (an eggplant-tomato-herb puree) and chicken pastilla (chicken, almond and herbs in phyllo).
Dishes are prepared to order at prices that won’t break the bank. Appetizers go for $3.50-$6 and entrees are $6.50-$13. If you want wine or beer, you’ll have to bring your own. Alternately, slake your thirst with a pleasant pot of fresh mint tea.
Our meal began with an order of falafel, deep-fried fritters — in this case, shaped like little muffin tops. The warm, crunchy falafel, made from ground chickpeas, was studded with sesame seeds and accompanied by two dipping sauces, one mild and creamy and the other a zesty tomato-based affair.
Among main-course options, the restaurant offers several tajines: slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures in a traditional, colorfully decorated heavy clay circular pot with a flat base and cone-shaped cover.
Rabat tajine included a lamb shank cooked with a savory medley of almonds, artichokes, preserved lemons, and kalamata and green olives. It was accompanied by a side of couscous. All in all, a highly satisfying dish.
But a dining partner’s chicken shawarma fared less favorably. The meat, served over white rice, was pleasantly seasoned but far too dry. Take a pass on this one.
Other tajines, also available with either lamb or beef, included sweeter versions made with prunes or apples. The menu includes vegetarian couscous preparations, a number of beef, chicken or lamb kebabs, a shrimp dish and various pita sandwiches.
A handful of desserts, including two rice puddings, are made in-house, except for the baklava. A good choice is the sweet and warm-from-the-oven phyllo-wrapped date rolls.
Tajine Casablanca seats about 40 diners at high and low tables with cushioned easy chairs. Rhythmic Moroccan music plays in the background, and the storefront restaurant is attractively decorated in an ocher-toned color scheme with Moroccan brass artwork and other artifacts on display.
Service is leisurely and the waitstaff is knowledgeable.
Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.