Where Italy meets the taste of Morocco
DARING to be different is always a gamble but it's been a risk worth taking for restaurateur and chef Mario Souayah.
This summer saw the transformation of The Old Malthouse in Bartholomew Street East into Casa Maroc which cleverly combines two very different eating experiences – Italian and Moroccan.
Last month saw the opening of the Casablanca Lounge Bar, a new cocktail bar and live entertainment venue aimed at over 25s, in the basement of the Old Malthouse.
Mario's ambitious ideas don't end there though with plans to also launch the Casa Pizza Takeaway, as well as an outdoor shisha bar in a large Bedouin tent where you can smoke tobacco free herbal flavours.
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While Mario is using his expertise to take care of the food and drinks side, his partner Mannuella Tarquini, a fashion designer, is responsible for the unique design of Casa Maroc which makes it unlike any place you will have ever visited before.
The most obvious thing that sets it apart from other run-of-the-mill restaurants is its three seating areas, all offering a very different dining experience.
Bringing north Africa into the heart of Exeter is its two cosy and secluded snugs, one called Kazbar and the other Harrem.
Both have been beautifully and tastefully designed to create the illusion of being in north Africa. Instead of chairs, cushions have been spread around low tables to offer a relaxed, fun and unique eating environment.
The main restaurant has been divided into Piazza, an Italian inspired eating area, and Souk, Moroccan style dining.
"Mediterranean food is traditionally eaten sitting on cushions on the floor or low chairs that are only a little higher than the floor," explained Mario. "That's what we've created in the restaurant.
"The two different cuisines complement each other. It's very important for the food to be authentic and my secret is I put my heart into it. I know the right spices to use and we marinate most of the dishes. What we serve is what you will find all over the Mediterranean. It's exactly the same dish and same recipe but it is given different names depending on where you are in the Mediterranean."
Tunisian-born Mario owes much of his food knowledge to his mother. Not only she did she teach him how to cook, some of her dishes can be found on the restaurant's north African menu.
"Her harissa sauce is absolutely fantastic," enthused Mario. "It's her recipe but my own creation for the restaurant. I don't make it as hot as it should be as people would not be able to handle it! It's a multi-use sauce or it can be used as a dip for people to try if they wish.
"Everyone who eats here comes back again. What makes the food so great is definitely the spices and freshness.
"When someone orders a dish that's when we make it, even down to baking the pitta bread fresh.
"All our bread is made from scratch and we also make our own pizza bases. I really don't know why people use frozen dough because fresh tastes so much better.
"Nothing is frozen and all dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients. The herbs and spices come from abroad. You can't get better than Tunisia and Morocco for creating north African dishes."
Mario has nearly 35 years of restaurant experience in the UK. He previously opened Mediterranean restaurant La Boca in Exeter five years ago. It closed when he started a new venture in Torquay, but Mario was unable to stay away for long after spotting a gap in the market in the city for a combined themed restaurant and lounge.
"It's the whole package people like – the decor, the food and the atmosphere," said Mario. "Exeter as a city is changing. The 18 to 25 market is well catered for in terms of nightlife, but there's not much for the older crowd looking for a great night out in the city.
"We are dedicated to being responsive to our customers, to giving people more choice, so have created a venue that people can rely on to provide a mix of live entertainment throughout the week as well as a place to really let their hair down at the weekend."
There hasn't been much chance of that for Mario. Incredibly he managed to open the restaurant in nine days and has relied on word of mouth, and interest in the seating area at the front of the restaurant to draw customers in.
"Other restaurants I've had six months to do, but this one was done in a hurry," admitted Mario. "We had to work very long hours to get it finished in time.
"Now we have opened the lounge a couple of months later. It has been decorated with pieces my partner and I have collected from all around the world on our travels such as a 500-year-old African wood door which weighs 500 kilos."
The most important thing for Mario though remains the food and it certainly doesn't disappoint. The north African menu includes extensive tapas and mezze options to tempt the tastebuds.
Puddings are also traditional and include Turkish delight which is made using an authentic pomegranate flavour and regularly coverts those who previously thought they didn't like Turkish delight.
Also on the menu is baklava: filo pastry with honey, almond and pistachios. No sugar is used because the sweetness comes from the honey instead, and it is served with chocolate or vanilla ice-cream.
The Italian menu features a wide range of pizzas, including well known favourites as well as new combinations like The Casa: creamy garlic sauce, chargrilled chicken, mushrooms and fresh thyme, or Vesuvius: N'duja – a spicy spreadable sausage made with pork, mozerello red onion and red peppers.
All the pasta is homemade with dishes including penne all arrabiata: Sicilian spicy pasta.
At lunchtime an alternative menu is offered with good value deals.
"The overall best-selling dish is homemade duck pastilla," revealed Mario. "It's duck off the bone mixed with almonds, pistachios and dried fruit then wrapped up in Tunisian filo pastry which is very, very thin. It is left to marinate for three to four days and then grilled and served with a prune sauce that I make myself.
"It has been on the menu at every restaurant I've had. At the moment I prepare all of the African dishes and some of the Italian. I do it because I want to keep the taste and continuity going. Eventually I will back off and let the other chefs take over!"
But the one place he definitely won't let anyone else take charge of is his kitchen at home because that's where Mario loves being at his most creative. The father of three said: "I love cooking for my family and am trained in six cuisines. It's what I like to do so I enjoy cooking at home, especially as I get to sit down and eat it unlike when I'm at work!"
Casa Maroc is open seven days a week from 11.30am to 11.30pm, Sunday to Thursday, and 11.30am to 1am, Friday and Saturday. For more details call 01392 498181 or visit www.casamaroc.co.uk