Reviewed by William Dobson
I noticed on Amazon the other day that one particularly irate (and idiotic) reviewer had given Moro’s wonderful cookbook one star. His reasoning was that it lacked ‘authentic Moroccan dishes’ and ‘seemed to have a Spanish feel to it.’ Hardly surprising considering it’s a Spanish cookbook. So yes, Moro isn’t technically Middle Eastern. And yes, it has been reviewed by all and sundry. But I think it would be remiss not to include it here anyway because, well, a) it’s just so damned good and b) it really reflects the vast Moorish influence on Spain’s cuisine. In a day and age when London is now home to multiple Michelin-starred Chinese and Indian restaurants, Moro remains one of the few (if not the only) establishments that takes Middle Eastern flavours and elevates them to something more refined and sophisticated.
I think what I love most about Moro though is its complete lack of pretension. It really does have the feel of a neighbourhood bar-cum-restaurant. The clientèle are eclectic, not just suited city workers and their trophy WAGs, and everyone is there to enjoy the food and, more importantly, to enjoy themselves – this is certainly not just a place to see and be seen. There’s no fanfare or frills, just consistently wonderful food. The restaurant itself is modestly decorated, the minimalist style in keeping with the ethos of the place, while the service is friendly and down to earth. The waiting staff are passionate and knowledgeable but also relaxed and approachable, as eager to have a laugh with you as they are to expatiate on the intricacies of the menu; changed daily and simply printed on A4 paper. Best of all, though, is their open kitchen. Not only can you watch the chefs hard at work but the delicious scents from meat grilling over charcoal and the smoke from the wood burning oven waft enticingly throughout the dining area.
I first went there a few years back for lunch, having heard such great things and eager to see if it lived up to the hype. Despite booking a few days in advance, due to its popularity it was only after much cajoling that they agreed to fit us in and, even then, sitting at the bar. If anything, this added to the appeal – encompassing that low-key tapas vibe while still able to enjoy the full restaurant menu.
This time, however, I went the whole hog and secured a table for the dinner service. I’m prone to severe food envy and, as such, had organised a table for four, more for the chance to try everyone else’s food, rather than for the company itself. So, after a quick drink in Bar Pepito, a wonderfully quaint sherry bar – more San Sebastian than Kings Cross – and in keeping with the evening’s theme, we traipsed through the snow (albeit in a taxi) to Exmouth Market.
Despite my aforementioned struggles with the green-eyed monster, I couldn’t haven’t been happier with my choices. The starter of squab with sweet onions, raisins and orange blossom water in warka, very Tunisian in influence, was exquisite. The presentation was rustic, but well thought out, while the sweet, fruity flavours were offset against the fragrance and slight bitterness of the orange blossom water and a complement, rather than a competition, to the strong, gamey toothsomeness of the pigeon, cooked pink and tender. The warka – similar to filo pastry – in which the dish sat added a crunchy and contrasting texture, with a light dusting of cinnamon and icing sugar giving an exotic twist. Nicky, my male company for the meal, went for braised cuttlefish with broad beans, preserved lemon and coriander which seemed to go down pretty well; so well in fact that I hardly got a taste. The cuttlefish was so tender it resembled tofu in texture, but thankfully not in flavour, while the preserved lemon gave a North African zing to an Andalusian classic. The two girls who had deigned to grace us with their presence for the evening, ‘L’ and ‘V’ (names withheld for legal purposes), went for the mojama (dried tuna, sliced thinly like jamon) and piquillo pepper salad with caperberries and the buttifarra (a Catalan pork sausage) with green anise and carmelised apple respectively; both delectable but perhaps not quite as spectacular as ours. ‘L’ was also a tad disappointed when it turned out she didn’t like caperberries although, seeing as she doesn’t like capers either, this should hardly have come as a surprise.
Confident that I wouldn’t have made the best choice two times out of two, foreseen food envy finally kicked in when I saw ‘L”s charcoal grilled lamb – dripping with blood – served with slow-cooked potatoes, artichokes and salsa churrasco. My carnivorous juices started to run and I began to salivate. Thankfully though, my grilled sea bass was outstanding. As with the lamb, it was cooked on the open charcoal grill, giving it a smokey barbecued flavour whilst remaining soft and succulent. The slight tartness and piquancy of the orange, olive and red onion salad with which it was served added a freshness and cut straight through the richness of the fish, while a potato and fava purée was a creamy, well-flavoured and delightful accompaniment. However, in spite of taunts for his ‘low-risk’ choice, I think it might have been Nicky’s wood roasted chicken which stole the show. It was full of flavour, with the meat moist and the skin crispy, and served with pleasantly bitter escarole; tangy, slightly hot, Tunisian harissa; and farika, an immature green wheat used as a Middle Eastern alternative to rice. The only slight letdown was ‘V”s mackerel with koshary, an Egyptian classic. Unfortunately, this simple yet fantastic combination of rice and pasta with a rich spiced tomato based sauce didn’t quite work with the oily mackerel; itself wood roasted to perfection but in need of something slightly sharper to accompany it.
One of the very best things about Moro is that their portions are gargantuan – is there anything worse than leaving a restaurant hungry? As such, by this stage, I could hardly stand up and, for the first time in months, was thankful that my jeans are about two sizes too big. But, lest we be seen as churlish and not knowing when we might be back, it seemed only right to finish off with a pudding. The rosewater and cardamom ice cream was a perfect way to end; sweet, spicy, fragrant and refreshing. ‘L”s yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate, despite resembling a cake in neither shape nor form, was also really rather special.
This was all washed down with a couple of bottles of Juan Gill monastrell, a fruity and full Spanish red. Nicky, having been placed in charge of the wine list, had, after studying it with pensive expression for quite some minutes, plumped for the ‘house red’. However, he backed down in the face of derision and heckling, before accepting the waitress’ recommendation. Not only was her choice excellent but also, thankfully, good value and it complemented the food superbly.
So, in summation, here’s to you, Sam and Sam Clark. I honestly can’t remember when I enjoyed a meal so much. It wasn’t just the exceptional food or the copious amounts of wine but, more than anything, it was the atmosphere. Dining at Moro, you just feel that you can completely let your guard down; such a tonic when compared to the stuffy atmospheres usually associated with ‘haute cuisine’.
Visit Restaurant Website
Address: 34 - 36 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE
Telephone: 020 7833 8336
Average Price Per Person: £40 - 60