Don’t be put off, as I almost was, by the location. Khamsa has actually been around for two years now, but it’s easy to miss, hidden as it is beneath one of the new glass-and-concrete condos that have been popping up in the Mission (and all around the city) lo these many years now. The exterior feels like you’re walking into an office building. I’m not going to lie, it’s soulless from the outside. It feels wrong to go here. But go.
First, it’s gorgeous inside. Beautifully decorated with stunning Moroccan-inspired tile work, azure walls, ornate glass and bronze light fixtures, and gorgeous murals, the space feels airy, yet rich. Light streams in from the narrow windows, filtered through the bottles behind the bar area, giving the restaurant a cool glow. One of the murals depicts the khamsa — the well-known symbol in Morocco (and other nearby cultures) of an open-palmed right hand, said to protect against evil spirits. It’s a lovely space, and you can tell someone took a lot of care with it.
The same goes for the food. Touting itself as blending Moroccan specialties with a fresh California touch, Khamsa’s food hit all the right notes for me.
Our first night, the BF and I shared a beet and orange salad.
The beets and orange slices were nestled into a pinkish, cream-cheesy slick, with scattered herbs and greens. Delicate, slightly sweet, slightly tart. A promising start.
Next up was the basteeya.
I adored this, although… we both found it a little dry. The phyllo-like dough was super crispy, enveloping a very balanced mix of wonderfully fragrant shredded chicken, almonds, onions, eggs, and cinnamon. Addictive in flavor and texture. The best one I’d had before Khamsa’s was at the now-shuttered Aziza, many years ago, and this one held its own. While I wish Khamsa’s was a little less dry, I would come back for just this dish, again and again. I also really liked that it’s served here as a very manageable appetizer. Forget I said it was dry. You should try this.
The BF’s entree was the beef tagine.
Served with roasted pears, walnuts and microgreens, this dish just sang out its beefiness. Tender, luscious. A must-try.
We ordered a bowl of couscous to sop up the juices from our mains.
I know couscous is supposed to be something of a blank slate, but we were disappointed at how bland this was, despite the almonds, raisins, and cinnamon it was tossed with. A little salt, maybe, people? Hmm?
Khamsa has two-to-three lamb dishes in different incarnations available at any one time, and I asked our server (who was also, I believe, part owner) which he preferred. Without hesitation, he said, “They’re all good, but the Mrouzia is really special.”
What a gorgeous hunk of lamb. Despite the description (saffron-honey lamb with raisins, roasted almonds, Medjool dates), it was only slightly sweet, but fall-off-the-rather-large-shank-bone tender, and not gamey. The couscous did a good job of sopping up those lamby juices. Another winner.
I had a wonderful couple of Palestinian wines — one a merlot and the other a semi-fruity baladi, which I’d never had before. A pleasure to try something new.
On our next visit, the BF and I started out with the house salad, which both of us failed to notice prominently featured kale until it was in front of us.
I’m not a kale hater, if it’s prepped right, but too many of the thick stalks were left in, and no one had massaged this poor, tense green (and yes, that is a thing.) The rest of the ingredients were dates, goat cheese, walnuts and basil, with argan oil. It would have been quite tasty, but for the tough kale. We didn’t finish it.
Next, we shared an order of kafta.
Can you say succulent? These lamb/beef meatballs follow in the tradition of kefte and kofte — spiced, meaty balls or patties, sometimes in a sauce. Here, they came napped in an oniony tomato sauce and were juiciness personified, served up with herby pita for soppage – another dish I’d gladly have again.
The BF got the chicken tagine for his main.
Most excellent! With roasted potatoes, figs, onions, raisins, walnuts. Very flavorful, fragrantly spiced, the juices were reason alone to order the couscous, but we got the saffron rice this time, hoping it had more flavor. Again: saffron, raisins, almonds, cinnamon … how can you go wrong? It smelled wonderful and, while it was a little less bland than the couscous, it still didn’t have enough flavor for either one of us.
For my entree, I opted for the duck seaffa — a vermicelli dish also known as seffa — with dried apricots and Marcona almonds.
I’d never heard of Moroccan vermicelli before, but it appears to be a dish traditionally served at weddings. Unfortunately, it too was bland. Adding a little salt helped, and I really enjoyed the tender duck.
Despite these occasional flavor lapses, I was intrigued enough with Khamsa to come back a third time.
My friend and I started out with the calamari stuffed with charred bell peppers and olives.
This was the first evidence of heat I’d had in any Moroccan dish, here or elsewhere, and I’m not familiar enough with the cuisine to know if that’s typical or not. It wasn’t blow-your-mind hot, just a little spicy. The calamari was tender, and the sauce good enough to order extra pita.
We also got a side of zaalouk.
Very much like baba ganoush, with the addition of tomatoes, but perhaps not quite as garlicky or smoky. We were glad to have the extra bread.
My friend got the chicken tagine, and it was every bit as good as the BF’s the previous time. A huge portion, she took half of it home with her. Also, on this visit, the couscous had a little more flavor, and I ate quite a bit of it with my main — fish tagine.
Replete with fingerling potatoes and carrots in a saucy broth, the firm/tender white fish held its own, but it lacked a little … something. If you don’t eat meat, by all means, you should try the fish, and I think you’ll be happy. Just don’t compare it to the lamb, beef, or chicken. Just don’t.
We even made room for dessert this time, and split the kunafah:
Kunafah, like its other Middle Eastern counterparts, is a crispy pastry with a shredded phyllo-like outer layer, studded with pistachios, and filled with what is usually a sweetened, soft cheese, similar to ricotta. It’s a delight of textures, and here, it also came with a small pitcher filled with a lovely honey/rose water concoction, which our server drizzled over and around the crunchy little dome. The only unfortunate aspect was that the cheese in Khamsa’s version of this dessert was more like mozzarella – stretchy. bland, and reminiscent of … pizza. I don’t know if the Moroccan version typically uses a mozz-like cheese, but I have to say I don’t prefer it.
Despite the quibbles, I’d come back, and I’d bring others with me. I still want to try Khamsa’s tanjia — not to be confused with a tagine — although both refer to the earthenware vessels that the meat, fish, chicken or stew cooks in. I’d like to try their merguez sausage, too. But mostly, I’d come back for any of the lamb dishes, the beef or chicken tagines, and for that basteeya. And the ambiance! There’s even a small patio for outdoor dining.
The service was warm, attentive, and friendly on each of my visits. While Khamsa isn’t cheap, the quality and precision of the food and the attention to detail of the décor, the gorgeous dishware, and the eclectic music make for a worthwhile experience.
1503 15th St. (corner of So. Van Ness)