Minimalism: nul points

MORO; 34-36 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE. Telephone 0171 833 8336. Open Mon- Fri 12.30-2.30pm and 7.30-10.30pm - tapas at the bar noon-10.30pm. Closed weekends. Average price per head, pounds 25. Credit cards accepted, except Amer ican Express
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Three reviews down, and I thought I was just about getting into the swing of this restaurant column thing. In non-review restaurants, I find myself itching to lay the notebook on the table, just in case, and start making mental notes of friends' comments and grimaces and whopping big smiles. But then, blow me, along comes a restaurant that leaves me quite bereft of any such urges, a restaurant that I really don't feel enormously enthusiastic about, though I don't particularly dislike it either. The food is good and more than that it is very much my kind of food. My companion was on good form, the sun was shining outside, all in all I had a pretty good time there, and yet ...

I think my problem with Moro is the dining space itself. It's minimalist. Very minimalist. I've never been desperately keen on minimalism, I didn't warm to it when Alastair Little opened his first Soho restaurant, but the food was so compelling that decor became immaterial. Besides, the room was small, but the one at Moro is huge and cavernous.

At Moro they've taken minimalism to what some may see as its coolest extreme, but to me it's a frosty and uncongenial extreme. A blocky, angular room, it comes as something of an icy shock after the old-fashioned bustle of Exmouth Market outside. The walls are, for the most part, painted white with not a picture or nick-nack to relieve the eye. A chrome bar runs down the length of one long wall, and at right angles, right at the back of the cavern, runs the surprisingly uncolourful open kitchen. The tables are rather hard and angular, too, and so are the chairs. Only two oases of colour give one hope - a broad band of brilliant, glorious Moroccan green opposite the bar (phew!) and a colossal bunch of blue flowers right at the far end of the bar.

What strikes me as so peculiar is that Moro specialises in Spanish and Middle-Eastern inspired dishes. This is an undoubtedly evocative partnership, conjuring up images of beautiful, sensuous surroundings (the Alhambra and its lush gardens, Seville's Giralda tower, fezzes and scented souks) intricate objects, richly patterned rugs and elegantly wrought luxurious furnishings, intense jewel-like colours. The premises, in short, are quite at odds with the food.

At least the food itself bears echoes of Arabian fantasy, rich with spices and intense flavours. It arrives with no frills and flourishes, looking absolutely itself and all the more appetising for that. From the relatively short menu (six starters, six main courses, four puddings), you could compile a pretty hefty tome of high- fashion and about-to-be-fashionable ingredients (pomegranate molasses, harissa, piquillo peppers, Manchego cheese ... will that do you?) and the good news is that they are used wisely and harmoniously to fine effect. This is no aspirational mish-mash.

The future-fashion score on our two courses was four and the been-around- a-bit (b-a-a-b) score was three. My salad won overall with a scary total of five; mojama (smoked tuna - one point), junion beans (melting, velvety, giant butter beans - one point), red onions (b-a-a-b - one point), wild rocket (one point) and the odd caper berry (one point), all in all an enticing tangle of first-rate ingredients, dressed with light olive oil. It came with its own burly lemon wedge, as did both our main courses. A welcome touch.

Across the table a plate of warm espinaca a la Sevillana raised a further two points with pine-nuts and a lazily draped fillet of tender salted anchovy. I love this Spanish dish (there's a recipe for it in my latest book, as it happens), and this was as good as it gets, the spinach freshly cooked, with leaves retaining a green and earthy sweetness, stalks with a hint of a crunch.

The chargrilled skewer of lamb (flat bread, chickpeas - two points) came with built-in highs and lows. The low was the lamb, on the chewy side with not a trace of pink under the charring. I gave it a miss and concentrated on its bed of chickpeas, thickly carpeted with tomatoey gloop, lightened with shards of tender, thin-fleshed, young, green pepper, hiding dollops of yoghurt and some pleasingly robust chunks of Middle-Eastern flat bread.

Opposite me, my lucky companion was tucking into arroz con pollo y gambas (real Spanish rice, saffron - two points), or in other words, a sublime version of what we've come to think of as paella, made with chicken and giant prawns, and not a trace of yellow food colouring to be seen. The grains of rice were fat to bursting, with a hint of sweetness and a waft of delicate spice, just moist enough, but not wet, and thoroughly moreish as well as Moorish.

Our postres (I'm getting the feel of this Spanish thing, now that I've made it to puddings) consisted of an up-market rum and raisin ice-cream (Malaga raisins - one point) replacing the rum with a good dousing of Pedro Ximenez (another point - sherry is in, isn't it?). It was intensely creamy and redolent of dark, almost burnt raisins. Delicious. And I came up trumps with a huge wedge of walnut, cardamom and lemon cake (not sure about the points on this one - over to you) served with a puddle of home-made yoghurt. Very fragrant, buttery, crumbling and filling.

There's one thing that I nearly forgot to mention and that's the bread. To ignore it would be a sin. Their sourdough bread, baked in their own wood-fired oven, is to die for. The crust is crisp and nutty, the crumb moist, soft and still slightly chewy. If only they'd opened a bakery on the side, I would have snaffled a loaf to bear triumphantly home.

As we made our way out, we did locate what almost amounted to Moorish clutter, dotted along the bar at regular intervals are blue and white pottery ashtrays. Small and discrete, it has to be said, but at least they offer a minimal break from the cool.