WILLIAMSBURG — When Anis and Karim Khemiri decided to open a restaurant in Williamsburg in mid-December, they thought of their mother.
The brothers, who hail from Tunisia, were raised on their mom's traditional comfort food, and wanted to share those recipes with others at their new Grand Street restaurant La Goulette — named after a famous port in the capital city of Tunis.
The walls of the 159 Grand St. restaurant, which the brothers opend with Karim's wife Mellie earlier this month, are painted the same aqua blue as the waters of his home country. Scattered among the 32 seats are pieces of Tunisian art and photographs of the white stone buildings and blue seas that make the country a popular vacation spot for Europeans.
Though Tunisian food offers some familiar dishes — such as hummus and babaganoush — Anis Khemiri stresses that the difference is in the spices.
"We have a customer, a Lebanese woman," he said. "Who loves our hummus. She said, 'What did you do to the hummus?'"
The restaurant imports Harissa and other special spices directly from Tunisia, to distinguish their Kefta kabab, falafel, and Shawarma from standard Middle Eastern fare.
They also offer a Tunisian specialty, the lamb sausage known as merguez, as well as a variety of salads, fresh squeezed juices, and the honey-soaked desserts baklava and kunafa.
The Khemiri brothers, who moved to the U.S. in 1997, have traveled back and forth between Williamsburg and Tampa, Fla., where they run a Mediterranean restaurant focused on Italian food — Tunisia's direct neighbor to the north.
In Tunis, Anis Khemiri said, "We have the Italians, the French, the North Africans. It's 3,500 years of history."
Some of that history is personal. The family's grandfather ran a small restaurant back in the home country, which they hope to emulate.
"You go into a lot of falafel places, it's fast food. They just throw it at you," Anis Khemiri said. "Here is upscale food. You sit, drink the mint tea, you're not rushed."
Their committment to a relaxed atmosphere is reflected in the business plan as well. "We do things with passion," Anis Khemiri said. "We aren’t rushed to be millionaires, we just want to work have the right food for people."
Since its opening La Goulette has been beseiged with delivery orders via Seamless, Anis Khemiri said that customers have been coming back night after night.
"We have customers who eat here now seven days a week," he said.