Bashir’s palace: An Algerian academic and his wife make the Downtown Mall their living room

Photo: Justin Ide
Photo: Justin Ide

A place like home

Occasionally Kathy and Bashir will raise their voices at one another in the kitchen. It can begin with one or with the other, but it’s often audible from the front of the house and it’s always over in seconds. The arguments seem frivolous, but they also seem to be crucial to their enviable bond.

“I think they have a dynamic in their relationship,” said Denise Burns, a long time customer who has, as many, many of their customers have, developed a personal relationship with the Khelafas. “Kathy’s in charge. Bashir thinks he’s in charge.”

“That’s the dynamic,” Kathy adds, cracking herself up.

“It’s not what we see every day,” said David Pettit, an attorney whose office is across the street from Bashir’s, which has made him a regular customer for years. “Bashir is very open in what he’s got to say and at the same time he cares a lot about the customers. That’s where the sweetness comes from. That’s one of the nice things about Bashir’s. It’s different. There are elements of different cultures here that show up in the food, they show up in the hospitality and they show up in the communications. But that’s all part of the fun.”

There is nothing remotely toxic about their interactions It’s not addled with even a hint of repression or passive aggressiveness. It’s functionally and pragmatically direct.

“She screams at him because she needs him doing something,” Burns said, “and he’s roaming around disconnected. It’s not a negative screaming. You just have to understand the dynamic.”

And no matter how sharp their tones may sound to the uninitiated they are both protected by the sweetness that their union is bathed in.

Kathy speaks Hungarian, French, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Bashir is fluent in French, Arabic, Berber (his native tongue), and English, and he speaks some Spanish and Italian. Spanish is their go-to language when they want to have private words in the company of others. They also have a non-verbal option. “We have silent ways of communicating when we don’t want people to understand,” Bashir said.

Bashir is an all-day cut-up, an inveterate jokester. He has a quick wit in several languages and gets every jibe or ruse presented to him immediately. He joshes the staff constantly, acting as though they have made some colossal mistake and caused the entire night to go sideways. It’s not immediately apparent that he’s always joking.

“He’s good at it,” said Joe Roberts, a staff server of about seven weeks now. “At first it was hard to tell, but he never says anything nasty to any of us.”

Bashir comes out of the kitchen often to make the rounds, work the room a little. But it’s very sincere and informal and there’s no hammy or hackneyed vibe. He may as well be making the rounds at a family reunion, seeing long lost relatives for the first time in years. And he and Kathy are always on the floor helping the servers for bigger tables so they can get all the plates out at once.

Jean Jacques’s Friday night finally came and he wheeled his backing track, 40-disc CD changer and PA system into the restaurant at about 6pm. As J.J. ran through some numbers for soundcheck, Bashir would sing along in French, from behind the cash counter, with nearly every song. At one point he teased Jacques that he wasn’t enunciating the lyrics to some of the tunes clearly enough.

“Are you kidding me,” Bashir said in a low voice, leaning toward me. “The French would kill him for that.”

J.J. was expected to host a conventional karaoke night where he spiked the punch bowl, as it were, by performing a few numbers himself then turning it over to an open mic format for random people to get up and butcher the classics.

He started his set proper an hour after he arrived, running through some songs that even I recognized the melodies of but couldn’t tell you the title of or any famous artist associated with any of them. He had a small built-in following courtesy of Alliance Française, an organization and website that allows the francophone diaspora to stay in touch and promote events. The room had an especially cosmopolitan feel that night. There were two- and three-cheek kisses going around with contagion. A table of five or six middle-aged women speaking French and laughing were situated just in front of J.J. Folks of every age, stripe, and language group were spread about the room.

James, a 50-something Algerian ex-pat, whose business card puts him in the international trade and finance game, came in wearing loose white slacks, a dark blue blazer and a Panama hat. An outfit that seemed to say he was there for leisure but could still talk business. He sat with his wife at a table against the wall, stage left. Before long they were chatting blithely in French with an African-American couple at the next table who live in Paris and were in town on business.

During J.J.’s third set, James ambled up behind the crooner as he stood at a music stand reading lyrics of an Edith Piaf song as he sang them. James eased himself closer to the microphone in J.J.’s hand, until he was right alongside him, echoing him word for word, note for note. J.J. was a sport about it, but looked as though he could have just as easily gotten by without the help.

“I am now going to sing the most beautiful love song ever written,” said Jean Jacques, introducing his next number. “Ne me Quitte Pas,” by Jacques Brel.”

He hit the play button and was off. Before he had finished the first verse, Bashir was out of the kitchen and across the dining room, nudging up to the right of Jean Jacques, while James was posted to his left, all of them trying to sing into the same mic.

The three men teetered in unison as though standing on the bow of the same invisible ship. At once, several people materialized at their feet shooting snapshots of the trio. It may as well have been the Three Tenors. Bashir had the best voice of the three. By the end of the second verse Kathy had come out of the kitchen and was trying to get a word to Bashir who was busy directing his own dulcet tones toward J.J.’s mic. I assumed she was trying to get him back to work but (I learned later) she was telling him to get J.J. to back off the mic and let the customers have a go.

It was the party scene of a Fellini movie. James had become possessed of the spirit of musical brotherhood and was forcibly dragging the reluctant gentleman from the table next to his up to the mic to make a quartet of it. Jean Jacques’ pallor had seen ruddier days.

The day after Jean Jacques, it was business as usual with the Khelafas.

“Cooking is no different from teaching or playing music,” Bashir told me as he pulled a lovely and perfectly browned pan of blazing hot baklava from the oven and poured a steaming pot of honey syrup with orange blossom and other secret flavor boosters. “There’s no shortcut. You have to pay attention. You have to have passion. If you’re there just for the money, don’t even try. When I taught at the City University of New York, I didn’t do it to be rich. I did it because I loved it.”

Their couscous is a prime example of the commitment to excellence that they consistently demonstrate. Bashir starts with semolina, mixing it with water and salt. He rolls it and then filters it three times until it’s washed down to a fine consistency. Then he steams it three times, changing out the water and checking for moisture and seasoning after each steam. If he is going to use all of it that day, he steams it with broth. After the third pass, it should then have the proper fluffiness and flavor. Then he adds sweet butter and mixes it up. It takes hours to produce something that serves as a bed, albeit a wondrous one, for steamed vegetables and slices of lamb or beef, over which he ladles a chicken stock broth with saffron and spices.

They put that kind of affection into everything they make.

Bashir loves America and the opportunities and freedom that it offers in a way only someone who has known a much more limiting and oppressive reality can. He came to America and succeeded at two very different professions. And he did it by following his passion and staying true to himself and to the things he felt deeply connected to.

Bashir is the ponderer, the philosopher, the lover of poetry and song. Kathy wants a tight ship in the kitchen and sometimes has to put her foot down to get Bashir to stay on task. They aren’t as young as they once were. Bashir has a very pronounced limp that came up in the last couple years that doctors have thus far been unable to pinpoint the cause of. And here’s the thing: they have no help in the kitchen. No one helping to prep, no line cook, no expediter, only a dishwasher on weekends.

“We had some help in the kitchen once but it wasn’t good for us. It didn’t work,” said Kathy. “I just slows us down. We have it down to a science. We have a system.” Bashir says he “will cook until I can’t hold a spoon or a knife.”

There is a completely different feel to Bashir’s Taverna from your paint-by-numbers, multi-partner-encumbered, investor-monitored, business plan-palled corporate construct. An informality pervades. People mill from table to table. Young children dance to polyrhythmic, minor chord Mediterranean lilts on the glossy smooth floor inside the front door and, on the right night, it all feels like a party at a good friend’s house.

“I’m not rich but I don’t care. I did what I wanted to do. There is so much love everywhere,” Bashir said. “People are afraid to love. Love is being open. It is acceptance. There is so much in the world to take in, so many beautiful things.”