Tending the Garden

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A s rain comes down on Kasbah Garden Cafe, Lahcen Alouah drags on a cigarette and looks out at his green oasis. Birdcages hang open, dripping. Six-sided, 12-sided and 24-sided Moroccan lanterns await dusk, while scattered tables await drier weather. An arched, three-stride bridge leads to a more remote region of the garden where peppermint grows at the ankles and a 30-foot tower of bamboo rises overhead.

“Every few weeks you have something else blooming. Jasmine, thyme, sage, oregano, basil, rosemary, lemon balm, lemon verbena, figs.” Near the center of the garden stands a 27-year-old Red Birch, and by Alouah’s guess, the garden’s peach tree bore 500 peaches last year. This year the squirrels got to them.

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What Alouah grows in the garden, Jamal Moumen, the head chef and Alouah’s business partner, uses in the kitchen. The grape vine’s leaves Moumen folds around a mixture of soft rice and parsley to make traditional Mediterranean dolma—or stuffed Grape Leaves ($5.95). The “Baba Ghannouj” (appetizer $5.95, plate 10.95) is sprinkled with hand-cut herbs from the garden, enlivening the gentle eggplant base with some bite. And though the ingredients in the falafel (sandwich $5.50, plate $10.95) aren’t from the garden, you could say Moumen’s recipe is homegrown.

The famous chickpea balls aren’t a staple of Moroccan cuisine. “I never even heard of falafel until I came to the U.S.,” Moumen confesses. So instead of relying on a traditional Moroccan recipe, as he does with the rest of the menu, he went into the kitchen and made his own. More oblong than spherical, the chickpeas aren’t ground up as usual. Instead they’re more mashed, with some chickpeas still intact and Moumen’s own blend of spices. “People come from Israel, Jordan, Egypt and say ‘this is not falafel—this is different.’” But while people don’t recognize it, they almost invariably like it, he says, myself included.

The garden is Alouah’s and the food is Moumen’s, but Kasbah is the brainchild of both. While their stories begin in Morocco, they found their ways here separately. Moumen studied to be a chef in Munich, then found work feeding Moroccan tourists. He was spotted by Disney personnel and was brought to America to cook at the Moroccan portion of Disney World’s Epcot theme park.

Alouah met his Italian-American wife working as a translator for American moviemakers shooting in Morocco. He got to work with Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quinn, John Huston and “the list goes on and on.” A picture with Sean Connery on the set of The Man Who Would Be King shows Alouah sporting an impressive afro. Alouah and his wife dated, then married, and in 1980 returned to her native New Haven. He now has a 34-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old grandson in the U.S. “This is a second home,” he says.

Alouah and Moumen are ethnically indigenous to North Africa, which is to say they’re Berber, or Amazigh, and not Arab. Arabs came to the region in the seventh century as conquerors and missionaries. By and large Arabic replaced the various Berber languages and Islam pushed out the Amazigh animist worship of moon, stars and mythological figures.

Both Moumen and Alouah still have family in Morocco and go back to their homeland at least once a year, Moumen to his seaside home near Aghadir and Alouah to his village at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, just outside Marrakech. When one is away, the other watches the restaurant—their own little piece of Morocco. “If there wasn’t a garden, I wouldn’t be here,” Alouah says about the property. He likes to sit and watch the birds bathing in the fountain. “Some I know the names of, some I don’t.”

Next March, they’ll have been tending the Garden for ten years. “That says something,” says Moumen. “For most restaurants the first few years is make or break.” And how has it been this past decade? “No complaints,” says Moumen. “We’re not rich, but we’re not very poor either,” says Alouah. “We’re happy.”

Kasbah Garden Cafe
105 Howe Street, New Haven (map)
(203) 777-5053
Tues-Fri noon-10pm, Sat-Sun noon–11pm
BYOB ($5 corking fee) with food order
www.kasbahgarden.com

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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