It’s not often I wander out to Cowley, as the journey more often than not ends with a disastrous tute, so it was with some apprehension that I left the Dreaming Spires with my trusty companion, Danny, to enter the unknown. Fortunately, Kazbar is only a few minutes’ walk down Cowley Road, and its vibrant exterior shines out like a beacon from what I otherwise extrapolate to be a grey, industrial wasteland. Diners lounge outside under strings of fairy lights, a gesture which seems to look the British weather in the eyes and say “Screw you, it’s summer if we say it is!” – and hey, this ballsy move pays off, as the air is unseasonably warm both outside and inside the partly-roofless yellow ochre structure which shows no signs of ever having been anything traditionally Oxonian. If a pub weren’t visible through the windows, you would be entirely convinced that you had left Oxford entirely, as Kazbar seemingly creates its own Mediterranean sun with a combination of cushioned benches, ornate lamps, live Flamenco music (though more on this later), and, of course, a menu without equal.
We perched upon cute wooden stools and started with some drinks; seduced by my favourite fruit, the enigmatic fig, I went for a fig and vanilla daiquiri, which arrived shimmering and frosty. Like all of Kazbar’s drinks, it was exceptionally refreshing, with a delayed rum kick after the sweet and sharp stay on the palate. Their house sangría, too, was remarkably full of juicy berry flavours rather than the acrid tang of cheap red all too often encountered, though a hungover Danny was not having any of it, going for a freshly squeezed lemon-and-limeade instead.
The tapas menu at Kazbar is extensive, but don’t feel daunted: it’s really quite impossible to order something bad. We nibbled everything from Spanish standards to Moroccan classics to house specials, each gobful bringing something different to the table and making us insist “Try this! TRY IT!” at every maiden bite thereof. Babaganoush, which we happily piled onto fresh crusty bread, was sweet and earthy and tasted of the charred aubergine flesh within, whilst a dish of houmous (the real McCoy, laced with cumin, not that lemony Greek nonsense) with spicy minced lamb and pine nuts was equally moreish, given substance by meat and pizzazz by heat. Then came the seafood: gambas al chermoula, colossal king prawns with an age-old Moroccan herb and spice mixture (smashing stuffed into fresh sardines to put on the barbecue), had the distinctive salty kick of preserved lemons; meanwhile, an adventurous Danny ordered pulpo a la gallega – octopus legs simply boiled with potatoes, red onion and smoked paprika to bring out their unique flavour. They were pleasingly chewy and aesthetically just wonderful, especially for those who like to see exactly which part of the animal they’re eating.
Meatwise, Kazbar offers a range to suit the taste of any carnivore (except a Jewish one – we think it’s not kosher); though it is pork-heavy, as Spanish food is wont to be, the menu still offers impressive beef dishes, notably the house special beef tagine, featuring melt-in-your-mouth slow-cooked beef which drips its nectarous juices onto a bed of prunes, apricots and fluffy couscous. Merguez – a Moroccan staple consisting of harissa-spiced lamb and beef sausages and, in this case, tzatziki – was a little disappointing, with the yoghurt sauce imparting a strange flavour to some otherwise flavourless meaty morsels. However, Kazbar’s sausage reputation was redeemed by the exemplary baked chorizo, bursting with violently crimson paprika and rich oil, full of guts and boldness: in short, the best we’ve ever had. Interesting though ultimately unremarkable, thought Danny, were the pork cheeks braised in cider – juicy and apply, they had an inoffensive, pleasing flavour and great texture, but were nothing to write home about.
I wasn’t especially looking forward to dessert until I saw that they had one of the best desserts ever made. CHURROS. Fresh crisp hot fluffy sweet greasy delicious sticks of cinnamonny goodness dipped in glossy chocolate sauce – so good that Danny, already eating a very rich potito de chocolate, tried to poach some, much to my dismay. And it’s not the first time, either. He needs a muzzle. All this was washed down with a strong cortado, a uniquely Spanish coffee that’s somewhere between a macchiato and a regular café au lait, which I really wish would catch on in England.
We finished our meal, y pues…the live flamenco music started (it being Flamenco Thursday and all), for which we were sat front and centre! A floppy-haired ragamuffin jamming on his guitar and a mysterious Spanish maiden with a flower in her hair and a flirtatious smile on her lips filled the place with irresistible rhythms, including an entirely unexpected cover of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ – though, of course, it was ‘A mi manera’, and significantly jauntier than the original. Whether you come for Ol’ Blue Eyes (or rather, Young Brown Eyes), for the cocktails, for the unrivalled range of tapas, or just for the atmosphere, make sure you find an excuse to come to Kazbar pronto.
The Sharif may not like it, but I certainly do.