Why you should go: For Valentine's Day, make a reservation to dine in the Casbah's intimate King Tut room and ply your sweetie with treats from Rguig's new list of Moroccan specialties.
Why did you decide to rescue the Casbah? Sabi [Atteyih, the former owner] is a good friend of mine, and we agreed right away that I would take over when he closed in June. It took till October to get the paperwork squared away. But I've always wanted to have my own restaurant. I have a passion for food - it's what I've done most of my life.
I'm from Marrakech, Morocco. When I was a kid I loved to watch my dad cook - mostly my mom took care of us, but he made special dishes for certain occasions. I went to Tangier to study at the International Institute of Tourism. My major was administration, but we had to study all aspects of tourism, so I got to work under the executive chef on a cruise ship that ran between Tangier and Spain. I spent five summers at that job. The amount of food they produce on cruises is enormous - there were five chefs, all Moroccans, but they'd all worked in other parts of Europe. I learned a lot, watching them.
When I came to Madison I started working in the restaurant business. I became a general manager for Appleby's - I opened new stores for them in Wisconsin. But the corporate life has its limits. Eventually, you say enough is enough. I'd been looking for a place to open a Moroccan restaurant for about a year before this opportunity came up. The Casbah's pan-Mediterranean style wasn't exactly what I wanted, but it already had a great reputation, so I decided to keep it as is. Sabi already had a few Moroccan-style dishes on the menu - couscous, chicken tagine. I decided to keep those, but prepare them with my own, more traditional recipes, and gradually introduce more Moroccan dishes.
What's changed? We've repainted the walls, except for the King Tut murals. And the menu's getting more Moroccan all the time. I took off a few things I didn't think were selling well. I added chicken shawarma and kafta, which people love. My lamb tagine with artichokes and peas is new. Sabi had a b'stilla, but it wasn't like the one I make! I'm getting ready to put some new lamb dishes on the menu. Lately I've been doing a lamb tagine weekend special, with green beans in a garlic tomato cilantro sauce - it's really good. And I'm looking at options for Moroccan desserts.
I'm getting some new Moroccan teas and tea glasses, so I can serve the after-dinner tea tray like we do at home, with little cookies made with things like almonds, walnuts, honey and pistachios. When I bring those sweets back from Morocco, everybody goes crazy for them, but I don't want to import. I'm hoping to find someone in the Moroccan community in Madison to bake them for me instead.
What do you do with your time off? I love golf and soccer, but I haven't had time to play. Spending time with my kids makes me happy. But I haven't seen them enough since I opened this place - I miss them a lot.