There’s been a quiet yet significant ownership change at Kasbah, the midtown Middle Eastern spot known for its romantic setting, late-night food and hookahs.
In June, longtime employees Tanya Azar and Debbie Chang, both 33, took over the restaurant from Paul Ringstrom and Conni Levis, the siblings who also own the long-running Tapa the World restaurant next door.
The process started two years ago, not long after Chang, a Kennedy High School graduate and Kasbah server-turned-bartender-turned-manager, earned her sociology degree at UC Davis. Del Campo High School graduate Azar was also a Kasbah manager with a Davis degree, in international relations.
“We were both like, ‘What are we going to do with our lives?’” Azar said.
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Added Chang: “I was looking toward doing something new. Maybe leaving the industry, or doing something else where I could use my restaurant experience.”
The pair approached Kasbah’s owners with a business proposal to buy the place. Though the owners had no previous plans to sell the 12-year-old restaurant, Chang and Azar “were ready to open a restaurant somewhere,” Ringstrom said, and he liked the idea of it being next door. After securing a loan, Chang and Azar went through a drawn-out process of obtaining a liquor license (Kasbah has a full bar).
The partnership between Chang and Azar, friends who met on the job, seems uncommon to the local restaurant scene. Though it is nothing new for longtime employees to buy a restaurant – even employees as young as Chang and Azar – many times the duo taking over is married or otherwise related.
Azar, who is Palestinian American and once ran her uncle’s cafe in Bethlehem, worked in the front of the house at Kasbah but always wanted to try her hand in the kitchen. She is now the kitchen manager and plans the menu. She was on maternity leave during our dining visits, during which Chang greeted customers, helped wait on customers and took reservations over the phone, among other activities.
Together, they are trying to bolster awareness of the food component of a place better known for the outdoor use of hookahs – large tobacco water pipes – and for its dimly lit, lushly decorated interior featuring Moorish arches, throw pillows and billowing swaths of fabric.
Kasbah serves food until 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and long ago locked in its status as a reliable late-night hangout. Azar and Chang now want to fill seats during regular dinner hours, they said. They said many people seem unaware Kasbah offers a full menu.
I had been to Kasbah a few times over the years, for drinks and small plates and to watch performances by belly dancers. These visits happened well into the evening and usually were part of group outings to celebrate someone’s birthday or new job.
For this review, we visited during the early evening and had full dinners, sans live entertainment, in a nearly empty dining room. Though other patrons were present, most sat outside, at a patio facing J Street or in the courtyard Kasbah shares with Tapa the World.
These recent visits underscored how one views “bar food” differently from food-food. On previous visits, the attractive setting, flowing alcohol and convivial atmosphere colored one’s opinion of the food. I vaguely remember liking what I ate, but not individual dishes.
A devoted dining experience, at the new Kasbah, yielded more mixed results. Everything tasted fresh, and a few items – lamb kabob, stuffed dates, banana beignets – were good enough to merit a visit to Kasbah just for them. But other dishes were bland.
Azar and Chang have introduced a large mezze platter with hummus, baba ganoush, tabouleh, labneh (yogurt-like kefir cheese) and falafel that, at $16.50, is a steal. Or so it seemed the first time we tried it, when the hummus held just enough salty brightness to highlight its earthy chickpea flavor. Though the excellent labneh was potently tangy, you still could make out the grassiness of the Tazah olive oil topping it.
The platter’s falafel, however, tasted lackluster apart from being a touch burnt. Yet the platter impressed so much overall that I ordered it again on my second visit, for a new companion to try. This time, the hummus, baba ganoush and tabouleh lacked sufficient flavor, with all in need of more salt or acidity.
On that second visit, the hummus also served as base for tender yet not especially flavorful chicken on a shawarma/hummus plate. The portion of meat also seemed scant, given the dish’s $9.50 cost.
There was plenty of flavor in the well-salted sautéed spinach and savory-leaning roasted coriander sweet potatoes accompanying the lamb kabob. But the sides seemed insubstantial for the hearty and excellent lamb. Slightly caramelized by a pomegranate honey sauce, the lamb was juicy and strongly flavored without being gamey.
Meat and sides also had been at odds on our previous visit, when a kabob of ground meat and lamb tasted plain next to pilaf-esque basmati rice enlivened by garlic, onion and vegetable broth. The plate also held grilled tomato and red onion, with the tomato’s sweet softness perfectly balancing the onion’s crisp texture and flavor.
My second “get a load of this” gambit – ordering something previously tried, as I had with the mezze platter – hit its mark with my companion. Part Middle Eastern, part European, Kasbah’s stuffed dates start with a Medjool date packed with bleu cheese and Spanish chorizo. Lemon batter and a plunge into the deep fryer put a bright-flavored top coat on a flavor wonderland of sweetness, salt and pungency.
Tempura firmness also enhances the delightful banana beignet dessert, which comes with a whole, squishy banana, cut into three pieces. A rich caramel sauce tops the beignets and accompanying scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Despite inconsistent execution, Kasbah’s food holds promise. This bodes well for the restaurant’s new era when also considering how Chang and Azar have maintained much of what was good about the old era, including live music (Thursday nights), belly dancing (Thursday-Saturday nights) and tasty drinks, including the frothy “Thyme After Time” craft cocktail that combines bourbon, herbaceousness and egg white.
Another good sign: When we stopped by Kasbah last week to ask Chang a question, we noticed a slightly more illuminated dining room. On our dinner visits, the lighting had been dim bordering on “I can’t read the menu.” This was OK with me, since I prefer the restaurant-as-hideout dining schemes of Zelda’s and Arthur Henry’s to overlit places.
By adding a few LED lights, Chang revealed more of Kasbah’s sumptuous decor while retaining that hideout vibe. The symbolism was clear: Kasbah looks to have a bright, yet still cozy, future.
2115 J St., Sacramento. www.kasbahlounge.com, 916-442-4388
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Beverage options: Full bar. Craft cocktails. Local and imported beers on tap. Wine and bottled beers from Turkey, Lebanon and Armenia.
Vegetarian friendly: Very, and vegan friendly
Noise level: Low. But we were indoors, and most other patrons were outside.
Gluten-free options: Yes
Ambiance: Dim, artful lighting, Moorish arches and rich fabrics combine to create one of the most romantic dining rooms in Sacramento.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
The new owners have bolstered the food menu, to promising but mixed results, while maintaining the Middle Eastern restaurant’s lively vibe and offering tasty cocktails and soft drinks.
Food ☆☆ 1/2
Some items, such as the banana beignets and stuffed dates, are worth visiting Kasbah just for them. Other dishes underwhelmed.
On the ball and knowledgeable. Co-owner Debbie Chang handled our table for part of one night.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
In the range of other midtown Sacramento restaurants, with good happy-hour deals. But the regular-menu lamb kabob ($17.50) and chicken shawarma with hummus ($9.50) plates were not as substantial as their prices indicated.