Saturday, 20 November 2010

El Cantara: My Road to Morocco (via Spain)

The Sheltering Sky, Morrocan desert
The Sheltering Sky
I have always longed to visit Morocco. In fact, I don't remember a time when North Africa didn't intrigue me. A passionate traveller and explorer of different cultures, Africa always appeared so fascinatingly dissimilar to anything I had ever known. Highly naively (but perhaps not surprisingly), my longing originated at the cinema. Wondering with my Grandfather how anyone could look as beautiful as Ingrid Bergman in a Casablanca bar; or marvelling at Meryl Streep's Kenyan home, wildlife treks and wonderful costumes in Out of Africa. I hope that as I grew older (and cinema progressed) my appreciation and understanding of what Africa might actually be like, became more sophisticated. Still, I have happily allowed films to provide me with temporary 'transport'. Raiding my parents' movie collection, I was seduced by 'Morocco' on-screen: The Sheltering Sky, Hideous Kinky and Babel each seemed highly evocative in their cinematography, use of colour and music. And, until I visit for myself, I must rely on films, books and the media, for some African access. But wait, there's also food.
Marrakech market, food
A Marrakech market

A handful of critically acclaimed Moroccan restaurants, including several affordable options, have carved a confident place for the spicy and sumptuous cuisine in our culinary-diverse city. North African food in London is having a fashionable moment. Keen to share the spotlight is recently-refurbished El Cantara restaurant, whose head chef Noureddine Khouyi made his name in Marrakech's Mamounia and London's Isis and Pacha. One difference here: the restaurant is a Moroccan and Spanish dual-offering; the name El Cantara, means "bridge" in Spanish and Arabic. I hadn't knowingly experienced this culinary coupling before, but it's not a surprising one given their interlinked history and Moorish influence on Spanish food, for example in stews and pastries. Asked for dinner at El Cantara, I was excited about the prospect.
El Cantara, Moroccan restaurant, Soho
A selection of El Cantara's dishes

Entering from Soho's bustling and icy Frith StreetEl Cantara welcomes guests by enveloping them within its warm red and orange walls and soft furnishings. Photographs, artefacts and lanterns adorn the opulent space, all of which were sourced in the markets of  southern Spain and North Africa by co-owners Hamza Harrak and Sam Mallach, and Moroccan interior designer Nadine Rovass. Sit on the ground floor and transport yourself to a Spanish taverna, with terracotta and walnut floors. Sip a glass of sangria and share tapas, before a flavoursome 'Paella Valenciana'. Or, head to the first floor dining room, based on a Bedouin retreat with ruby-red textiles and hand-engraved brass tables. Outside, there is a private terrace, for smoking shisha or relaxing with a cocktail. Luckily, outdoor heaters make this is viable option for winter, open until 1am on weekends (when you can also enjoy belly dancers).

Paella Valenciana, El Cantara restaurant
Paella Valenciana

As for my evening at El Cantara, we began tapas-style, with a selection of Moroccan and Spanish favourites. Complementing each other well, dishes were fresh, tasty and moreish. A unanimous favourite was the 'Pastila of chicken' (pastry was thin and crispy on the top and perfectly softened under the succulent meat filling). Not to forget the super-soft olive bread ('Pan de Alceltuna'), which was delightful on its' own and spectacular with homemade houmous. Also surprisingly anything-but-simple in taste were the warming spinach and feta pastries. 

Pastila of chicken, El Cantara restaurant
Pastila of chicken

Perfect for friends who are happy to share, every diner receives a tapas-sized place for each course. So, we continued in this spirit and chose several main dishes from either country to sample. Alongside the generous seafood paella, we devoured a tender, suitably seasoned and honeyed lamb tagine. Pleased to find fluffy couscous and a tasty mixed grill nearby, I easily imagined that I could walk out onto the streets of Morocco. Or Spain. I wasn't sure which, but after a tasty fusion of both cuisines, I didn't think it mattered. 

Lamb tagine, El Cantara restaurant
Lamb tagine

To finish, we enjoyed 'Baklawa' which were soft, nutty and delectably sweet. 'Crema Catalana' (the Spanish Creme Brûlée) was one of the best I've ever tasted and pistachio ice cream proved the perfect palate cleanser. As ever, I thoroughly enjoyed the Moroccan fare and my determination to visit continues. The Spanish infusion was surprisingly welcome and ensured a unique menu.

City Girl (EC1) was a dinner guest of Jori White PR.

Images: 1) Stylus magazine, 2) Concierge.com, 3), 5), 6) Thank you to El Cantara, 4) my own.

5 comments:

  1. wow my mouth is watering!!! that sounds amazing, all of it!

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  2. I've always wanted to see Hideous Kinky. I am a huge fan of Kate Winslet. The food you describe seems delectable.

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  3. Morocco is on my list of dream travel places too! But until i can go, I think exploring through cuisine is a smart way to learn about a place before getting there. The food you tried looks great!

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  4. I have always wanted to go to Morocco. Are the markets as amazing as everyone says? It looks incredible.

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  5. i don't know why but i've also always wanted to go there! i guess it's just the way it sounds.. Morocco :)so THANK you for tis great educational post! i also love baklawa

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