This was my second visit to Karim’s since word went out he’ll be retiring his restaurant at the end of March.
This time, it was two of us, which is what I prefer over a large group. Karim’s is a great place for a party and group environment, but when I want to concentrate on the Moroccan food, an early evening with just one friend is the way to go.
Many others are coming to Karim’s in the last days of the restaurant, hoping for a final feast; this is the only Moroccan food to be had in Santa Barbara. Other diners included Sonny and his family, who run Spice Avenue just around the corner on State Street. His family also owns Naan Stop, where I’d eaten lunch just earlier in the day. Sonny always remembers me, from over six years ago, when I first ate at Spice Avenue. After paying my bill, he came out to ask who in my group was from England. It was just me, an American, and Brett an Australian, sitting there. Sonny clarified: the bill was paid using an English bank card, whose was it? Well, that was me, from when I lived and worked in London. Sonny smiled and said he was from east London and was happy to meet someone from the area. In future visits, he would always say hi.
It starts with hand washing from the host, before diving into menus and appetizers.
Fifth course: Couscous with vegetables. Most don’t realize the couscous can be a completely stand-alone dish. It’s served just moments after the main dish comes to the table, and most think it’s just a side accompaniment, but in Morocco, this is a very traditional meal on its own. Generally served Fridays, the day of worship in Islam, and people have extra time during the mid-day break for prayers and a meal with the family. Couscous, when properly done, is a lengthy preparation with repeated steamings of the couscous, laying it out, mixing it, adding broth, adding the vegetables to the couscouserie throughout the process to ensure they finish cooking at the same time. I was lucky enough to spend a Friday afternoon in Morocco with a woman while she made the couscous. Wow, the time and care that went into it. It even has its own clay serving platter. So when the couscous comes out, don’t relagate it to the side as something worth dabbling into if there’s not enough other food to sate the appetite, it’s something to savor as well. And this time, it’s okay to use a spoon. Couscous is small!
Sixth course: assorted desserts and tea. The syrup cookies are good, but I am so full at this time I rarely eat more than half of one. Instead, I concentrate on the fruit basket piled high with apples, banana, strawberries, oranges and whole nuts. More often than not, this was how I wrapped up meals in Morocco. A little fruit and fiber feels better, too, than more cooked food after such an overwhelming feast. Karim’s normally serves the tea at this time, but really, you can have it any time. Tonight, I started having tea with the first course, and got a top up at the end as well. The tea is a combination of black gunpowder tea, fresh mint leaves and lots of sugar. LOTS of sugar. The tea here seems to be about half the amount of sugar of the tea drank in Morocco (which is also served with sugar on the side, that many use to make it even sweeter). No matter your tolerance level for sugar, the tea comes from a silver teapot and pour high above the cup, to areate the tea as it pours out.
Depending on timing, you may be pulled up to join the bellydancer. Early diners sometimes get away without dancing. Like us!
Karim’s is closing his restaurant after about 20 years of serving yummy Moroccan food to Santa Barbara.
So come and get it while it lasts. Doors close at the end of March.
Hospitality is a gesture of honor to Moroccans, at least my understanding of it. The dealio is that travelers passing through were doing the Haj, and the gift of the Haj wasn’t about reaching the destination, but about what was learned in the journey. So taking in a guest meant contributing to their life journey, education and enlightenment.
Eating at Karim’s is a bit like doing your own little Haj, and being his guest. There is an abundance of food, and he’ll often come out to sit and talk with you.
It starts with a welcome, being given a towel to put in your lap, and getting your hands washed with orange flower water from a silver Tass.
You pick a main course, and this includes a set meal of all other accompaniments, like soup, a dish of salads (a bit like mezze), b’stilla (heavenly! and something I never figured out how to make on my own), couscous and vegetables, and dessert of sweet syrup cookies, fruit and mint tea. And of course, piles and piles of good Moroccan bread.
Some nights will have bellydancing, and you either love it or hate it, depending on how outgoing you are, because you do get pulled onto the floor to join in.
I love the tajines and tend towards the lamb with prunes and sesame or the chicken with preserved lemon and olives. Finger-licking good, literally. Cuz you are supposed to eat with your hands.
The ambiance is very sensuous, with fabrics on the wall, and long seats around the circumference of the dining room, piled with pillows.
Lots of people come for special occasions, and big groups. This can be great fun, but I liked coming with just one or two other people and mingling with the other diners and staff. After all, I can contribute to others’ mini-life journeys, too. It was just a few years ago, with a few friends, that spontaneous dancing broke out late into the evening with the restaurant crew, complete with bellydancing (poorly, on our parts), hula hooping, and one waiter balancing a corner of a table on his head!
I came here recently for a friend’s birthday, and again, lots of dancing, group chatter, music, lounging…the works. And we ate until our bellies hurt.
But all good things must come to and end. You’ve got to the last weekend of March to get the full experience of Moroccan hospitality. After that, Karim will be all about catering and cooking classes, which will be good no doubt, but not the same as the sights and sounds his restaurant offers.