Walking into Al Hamraa, Karim Sellam’s new Moroccan restaurant in the Ix building, is like walking into a scene from an old Hollywood version of Arabian Nights—you know, the kind of old movies depicting Middle Eastern folk tales, where someone rides up on his camel to what looks like a tiny desert tent and upon entering finds that it’s been magically converted to a cavernous space filled with hundreds of sheiks and belly dancers milling about, smoking the hookah and playing the lute. That is to say, Restaurantarama was blown away by the vast and elaborate transformation of the interior of this space, which, on the outside, looks deceptively nondescript and similar to its Ix office park neighbors—Blue Wheel Bicycles on one side and Sellam’s other eatery—the Italian-themed Ristorante Al Dente—on the other side. (Recall that Sellam moved Al Dente to Ix this spring from his previous Mall location above Escafé.) That is not to say, however, that the place is cartoonish. Restaurantarama has never been to Morocco, but Sellam tells us this is the real deal. All of the traditional Moroccan designs that fill the restaurant—intricately-carved woodwork, jewel-toned textiles, mosaic tiles and ornate light fixtures and accessories (the star pendants are made of henna-painted sheepskin)—are straight from Sellam’s native country. Gesturing to the dramatically-adorned space, Sellam says, “This is just like home.”
“We aren’t just going to serve tagines and couscous,” says Karim Sellam of his new Moroccan restaurant Al Hamraa, slated to open next month in the Frank Ix Building.
And when Sellam says “home,” he means it. There really is no such thing as a public restaurant in Morocco, where cooking and dining is an at-home friends and family affair. Introducing Charlottesville to the Moroccan dishes and décor he grew up with has been a dream of Sellam’s since he moved to the area several years ago and opened Al Dente. The name Al Hamraa, which means “red” in Arabic, is a reference to the pomegranates growing in the Moroccan countryside where Sellam grew up.
At Al Hamraa, Sellam says you’ll have an opportunity to enjoy all of the regional European, African and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients that influence the cuisine of Morocco. “We aren’t just going to serve tagines and couscous,” he says. You can also eat with your hands, family style, if you really want an authentic Moroccan eating experience, but utensils and a la carte ordering also will be available for the less adventurous.
Sellam expects Al Hamraa to open the first week in November and plans to serve full-course dinner accompanied by traditional music daily from 5:30 to 9:30pm. After 10pm on the weekends, look forward to Middle Eastern and regional dance music, tapas, and yes, hookah smoking.
Main Street Market news
With the old Verity Blue and Milano spaces lying vacant since those two businesses departed in June for new digs on South Street, Restaurantarama, for one, has appreciated the pleasantly emptier Main Street Market parking lot for quick afternoon Feast and Organic Butcher runs and Orzo lunches. We suspect, however, that Main Street vendors would love more of the spontaneous, drop-in business that coffee shops provide, and damn, it’s been a bummer not having to-go espresso over there. Well, the good parking/lack of java days are almost over. The partners behind Orzo Kitchen and Wine Bar—Charles Roumeliotes and his wife, Katherine Kroloff, and Ken and Laura Wooten—are opening a new little coffee shop/breakfast and lunch cafe in the old Milano spot, and in it they will serve espresso, smoothies, panino and flatbread sandwiches. The place will be called Calvino Café, which Wooten tells us is in homage to the Italian writer Italo Calvino. The new cafe has taken over part of the old Verity Blue space to add an open kitchen and room for 14 or so inside seats. Outside will be seating for another 20 under a retractable awning. Wooten says Calvino will operate daily 7am-5pm when it opens around December 1.