Yet gourmets, most of them French (they have wielded colonial power in these lands), look beyond the very real health and hygiene problems of these countries. They delight in the aromatic perfume of couscous and tagines, the heady scents of spicy grilled fish and roast lamb, the richness of stuffed vegetables and fresh, minty, nutty, citrus salads.
And so it is that this new restaurant, Bruno Soho, is primarily a French initiative. Bruno is Bruno Loubet who opened L'Odeon (in Regent Street) last year, a man who's passionate about the aromatic spices special to the Arab world. His partners are Pierre Condieu, who has lived in Morocco, and his Irish wife Kathleen, who has lived in Tunisia. And the chef, Pierre Khodje, from Marseilles, has a Tunisian mother and an Algerian-French father.
"I know it's not foie gras," says Pierre Khodje modestly, "but no one makes couscous as delicate as my mother's." It's so light and fluffy, he says, that you can press on it, and when you take your hand away it bounces right up again.
But here's le crunch. Bruno and his chef will not actually be presenting authentic specialities from these regions. Instead, they have taken it upon themselves to re-invent Arab and Turkish cooking, "I must be honest," says Bruno. "I do not have an African mother, I did not spend my childhood there, I haven't taken many holidays in these countries. It's simply that I like the smells and flavours of all the Mediterranean. But Mediterranean cuisine means Italian cooking to most people now. Roast peppers, Parmesan, tomatoes. I want to use other elements from the Mediterranean, cumin and cardamom and coriander and saffron. Oranges, pistachio nuts, honeys."
It's an idea the partners have been toying with for some years but it had to wait while they launched L'Odeon. However, one would assume, wrongly, that the inspiration was the wonderful eating experiences they all had on their various travels. Although Bruno visited markets in Istanbul and Marrakesh to pursue his researches (finding wonderful vegetables, extraordinarily fresh spices) he didn't think the cooking was up to much (well, Bruno is a very top chef - with Michelin stars and all that).
"In Turkey the food was pleasant, but ordinary. Always a vegetable soup, some grilled fish with chopped garlic and lemon and oil, or a lamb stew with a lot of fat. The flavourings were heavy-handed."
Morocco, with its famous national dishes, b'stilla (sweet pigeon pie), its couscous stews and slow-cooked tagines, was an to prove an even bigger disappointment. "In one of the best restaurants they seemed to think it was enough to boil some pieces of lamb for 20 minutes - it was hardly cooked. A lamb stew should cook for two hours. They threw in spices carelessly." If Moroccan cuisine had ever been notable, the time seems to have passed, he decided. He found it completely lacking in refinement, judgement or balance.
"The lamb tagines were very, very fatty. The b'stilla wasn't disgusting, but it wasn't good. The meat inside the pastry was dry, and it was much, much too sweet." Partner Pierre Condieu joins in: "They drink mint tea with so much sugar in you just can't swallow it. You see the men sitting with mint teas, and a million wasps clinging to the rim of the glass."
But Pierre's memories were of the more romantic sort, on the hippie trail to Marrakesh 20 years ago. "Break-fasts of syrupy rum baba and coffee, tagines for lunch with lots of tannic red wine, 14 per cent of alcohol, but that was all right, and swimming in the ice-cold mountain streams."
What can Bruno bring to their style of cooking? Pierre Condieu, Kathleen and myself are to be the guinea pigs to run though a sampling of Bruno's new menu. The dishes may represent the tastes of many Mediterranean cuisines, but none of them existed before today. It has been written of Bruno that unlike the chefs of old who would invent perhaps two original dishes in a lifetime, Bruno invents two new dishes a week. And so it is that a dozen new dishes are unveiled for us.
Kathleen recognises the lidded terracotta dishes as those she haggled for in a Marrakesh market and bought for no more than a pound each - though they weren't so cheap by the time they'd been shipped over here. This is the meze course, five saucers of tempting and tasty mouthfuls.
Item: diced feta cheese, marinated for 24 hours with olive oil, chopped olives, a lot of chilli, a little garlic, spring onion, pistachios, pine nuts. Really zippy and fresh.
Next: squid, cut in small pieces, sprinkled with freshly-ground black pepper, sauteed in a film of hot olive oil for 20 seconds, left to marinate for hours with finely-sliced raw heart of fennel, a bit of garlic in a thin rouille sauce (rouille: mashed potatoes, red pepper puree, egg yolk, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice whizzed in a liquidiser). Delicious.
Then we try baby green peppers (piquillos or padrones), roasted, skinned, stuffed with salt-cod brandade (puree of salt cod, mashed potato, garlic and olive oil), dipped in batter and deep-fried. Yummy, yum. Next: snails in a "stew" of fresh tomatoes, shallots, chilli, olive oil, coriander. Tender, sweet and earthy; also, aubergines, roasted, chopped and marinated in an oriental relish (apple, tomato, spices) and served beside a cucumber raita.
Then two fish courses: red mullet, brushed with home-made hot harissa paste, then wrapped in a vine leaf and baked. This is served with a scoop of couscous, studded with jewels of red pepper and a parsley salad. And sea bream, grilled for a few minutes, transferred to a hot oven in a dish with fish fumet (stock), oven-roast tomato, cumin, sprinkled with chopped preserved lemon. Served with blanched onions (briefly boiled), finished by cooking in olive oil.
Meat courses: b'stilla. B'stilla Bruno is made with confit of duck rather than pigeon. The shredded meat is mixed with chopped ginger and almond, then trapped in layers of filo pastry brushed with melted butter, flattened and baked. It is served with a sprinkling of icing sugar and cinnamon, and a sharp and sweet chutney of onions, mango and lime.
The tagine of lamb. Lamb slow-cooked in lamb stock with prunes, onions, cinnamon, celery, honey vinegar. Served with a torpedo of mashed potato, with flaked almonds.
For dessert? A compote of cold cooked apple with a green apple sorbet, sitting in a delicate apple jelly (made with apple tea, the national drink of Turkey).
And to crown it all, the golden glory of Bruno's candied pumpkin. On a very low heat he simmers, for two hours, half-moon slices of pumpkin, which are no thicker than 5mm, in a sugar syrup that is flavoured with star anise, ginger, fennel seeds, saffron and pink peppercorns (which he picked himself on a visit to Turkey). The pumpkin is then left to cool overnight. It is served with a sharpish yoghurt ice cream, flavoured with lime zest.
Original dishes, every one of them. It will be surprising if some of them do not migrate to other chefs' tables before very long. That is the penalty to be paid for originality.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Bruno is one of the most- copied chefs. Does this annoy him? Bruno frowns: "Sometimes I think people who copy have much more success than those who create." Maybe they do, but maybe they don't.
The proof of the Bruno pudding will be in the eating. Bruno Soho is at 63 Frith Street, London, W1V 5TA. Tel: 0171 734 4545.
LAMB NECK FILLET TAGINE
If you have one, use the authentic tagine. Otherwise, a casserole will do.
600g/1lb 4oz lamb neck fillet
300g/10oz chopped onions
200g/7oz chopped celery
4 tablespoons honey
6 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
500ml/16fl oz lamb stock
80g/234oz toasted almonds
2 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
1 stick cinnamon
Cut the lamb fillet into medallions, 1cm thick and in a saucepan with a film of olive oil gently fry, to lightly brown. Remove the lamb and set aside on a plate. Replace lamb with the onions, celery, bay leaf, thyme and cinnamon. Gently fry until lightly coloured then add the honey and vinegar. Boil quickly, to reduce to a glaze. Then add the medallions of lamb, half the prunes and the lamb stock. Leave to cook for one hour, just simmering. Remove the lamb and pass the liquid through a colander and then through a fine sieve over a clean pan. Boil the liquid to reduce to the consistency of a smooth sauce. Arrange the lamb pieces in the tagine with the almonds and prunes and pour over the sauce, close the lid and place in a hot oven (400F/ 200C/Gas 6) for 15 minutes.Reuse content