"Who wants to sacrifice prawns and chorizo for sliced octopus’ legs, when you can have both?"
With a décor that faithfully recreates the mood of southern Spain and North Africa, Kazbar was the first establishment to really bring in authentic, tapas-style dining to Oxford in earnest, and still remains essentially unopposed. “Small plates” may be all the rage in restaurants today, but I can’t think of anywhere else with an OX postcode to really do this style of cuisine justice.
The last time I ventured in through Kazbar’s dramatic, gnarled wood front door was in the height of summer, when it’s impossible not to enjoy yourself with nothing more than a cold Estrella and some good company. On a drizzly March evening, you have to try a little harder, but burrow as deep as possible into the enclaves and you forget what time of day it is, never mind the weather.
So, where to start? Whilst you’re spending the obligatory two hours arguing over which tapas to share, keep the hunger at bay with some of Kazbar’s fresh tapenade and baba ganoush – the former is coarsely blended and packed to the rafters with heady garlic and tomato flavour, and the latter is smooth and moreish with the subtle hint of sesame. A fine start.
Now – a word of warning. As you make your orders from the main menu, it’s far too easy to become lost in indecision and just order every type of dish imaginable. Who wants to sacrifice prawns and chorizo for sliced octopus’ legs, when you can have both? Still, as the tapas start at £3.25 and never reach higher than £6.50, you’d have to have a serious appetite before becoming worried about your expenditure. The seafood is perfectly nice but it’s the land-based animals that shine the brightest – pork cheeks in Mayador cider shine with a fresh apple bite that permeates through the impossibly tender flesh. Chicken wings fall off the bone and come dripping with a fiery lemon and honey marinade, and merguez sausage is exemplary, with just the right level of spice and generously served to boot. A wide selection of grilled and roasted veg, alongside Manchego and potato variations, rounds off proceedings nicely, and if you can manage it, the quince cheesecake is marvellous – enough tart sourness to stop the fluffy cream cheese base from becoming sickly.
Perhaps the greatest asset in Kazbar’s arsenal is their staff – much like at sister establishments Café Coco and Café Tarifa, each waiter and bartender appears fluent in good service, warm without being overbearing and knowledgeable without being fussy. The atmosphere on my visit remained convivial, despite inclement weather, which might be the best reason of all to visit Kazbar: sheer escapism. Come rain or shine, the place hasn’t slipped for 16 years – long may it continue.