Saturday, June 8, 2013

Our First Date, Eight Years Later

While in Oxford this weekend, John and I decided to stop by the restaurant where we had our first date, over eight years ago: Kazbar, a Spanish/Moroccan-inspired tapas bar located on Cowley Road. I remember being super impressed that John had taken me there on our first date - being from a small town in Washington and attending college in a possibly even smaller town in western Massachusetts (although, the Pioneer Valley did have a lot of restaurant options), I had never had (or even heard of) tapas before and I think it was also the first time I'd tried sangria.

I remember thinking that the restaurant was so cool, with its souk-like feel, candle-lit lanterns, and Bob Marley crooning in the background. I asked John if he had tried to impress me by taking me to Kazbar and he shrugged, "I didn't think about it too much, to be honest. I just thought it was a fun place to go to." But if you think about it, tapas (and at Kazbar in particular) is the perfect way to get to know someone. You find out if they're picky eaters (I avoided the olives wrapped in anchovies, for example), if they're good at sharing, and you get to sit close together on the stools/benches for some first-date appropriate canoodling.

So, just for fun, we went back last night and the restaurant was just as I had remembered. The staff was super friendly and I couldn't help but confide to my waitress as soon as we were seated that we were re-living our first date. "That's so cute!" she said enthusiastically, although I realised I must have sounded really old as soon as the words, "eight years" slipped out of my mouth.

No matter. I preserved my youthfulness by ordering a Moroccan iced tea (infused with Absolut) and we started selecting our tapas from the diverse but focused menu: gambas al pil pil (prawns cooked in chilli and garlic butter), octopus, beef tagine with cous cous, more cous cous (because I love it), jamon serrano, patatas bravas o aioli, freshly baked bread, and some extra virgin olive oil for dipping. The food was delicious and it was a fun, atmospheric environment that soon livened up when the pre-party students arrived. Filled to the brim, we still opted for some cinnamon sugar churros served with chocolate dipping sauce and mint tea at the conclusion of our tapas extravaganza. They arrived to our table piping hot and chewy (otherwise known as, perfection).

During our meal, John and I discussed what made a restaurant "good" and agreed that it isn't necessarily the number of Michelin stars that have been awarded, or food critics' reviews that impress us. Instead, the reason why we return time and time again to certain restaurants is quite simple: we like home-cooked, quality food in a fun, relaxed environment, served up in a friendly style. It's not a difficult formula, so I'm wondering why more restaurants haven't cracked it.

And that's what I love about places like Kazbar. Everyone's friendly, everybody's having a good time, the food is tasty but not gourmet, it's okay to get cous cous on the table and use your bread to mop up your plate, the twinkling lights on the ceiling are enchanting, and before you know it, you've spent two hours having a terrific time.

As for my date? Well, he's pretty special himself. Even eight years on.

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