It's the dog days of summer, you're stuck in London, the weather is humid, grumbly and headache-y, and no new independently owned restaurants are opening this month. You're starving and want to be transported, gastronomically speaking, from the English summer. You want to eat somewhere with a reek of charred flesh, an abrasive tang of roasted spices, a fume of bletted exotic fruits and the dirty, ashen feel of coffee grounds in tiny cups. You aren't quite sure which cuisine is calling you, but you know it's from somewhere between Marrakesh and Madagascar.
Right on cue, an envelope drops on your desk with hot news: Del'Aziz is opening in Bermondsey, the fifth in a chain of bar-restaurant-bakery-shops owned by the enterprising Shahrok and Zehra Parvin. Their shout-line is "Discover the magic of the Middle East on your doorstep", while a press release tempts you with a cornucopia of dishes from the "cuisines of North Africa and the eastern and central Mediterranean", all available in "London's newest and hippest district, Bermondsey Square" where diners can sit in a "striking al fresco area ... with twinkling lanterns, ideal for a romantic evening".
Talk about whetting my appetite. We don't often review chain restaurants in these pages (the noise, my dear – and the people) but this was irresistible. I seized a companion and raced to the street. "Take me," I cried to the cabbie, "to London's newest, hippest district, and step on it!"
Well that took a bit of straightening out. After he'd taken us, successively, to Shoreditch, Brick Lane and Hoxton, we finally arrived at Bermondsey Square, just off Tower Bridge Road.
The square is mind-bogglingly ghastly, a combination of the garish and the banal that would drive away any but the starving. One wall features the windows of the Bermondsey Square Hotel in its shocking neo-brutalist glory. Below is a tacky-looking bar/grill called Alfie's, the name announced in vast chrome lettering. Outside Del'Aziz, diners with hurricane lamps at their tables can watch the throng of shoppers queuing for ready-meals at the next-door Sainsburys. Overhead, spot-lights hang from a complex, criss-crossing structure of wires, like a tram junction in eastern Europe. It's all about as romantic as a junction-box.
Our cocktails took 20 minutes to arrive. My date's Sensual Roses, allegedly with vodka and lychee liqueur, was a tequila sunrise served on crushed ice like a Slush Puppy. I asked for something spicy to combat a cold, and was given a vodka-cranberry Sea Breeze with two slices of angry red chilli.
I don't really want to dwell on the food, because it was mostly as formulaic as the ready-meals counter next door: more-or-less-tasty mezze without, for a second, offering anything out of the ordinary. The house hummus was fresh and garlicky, the baba ganoush aubergine dip lumpy and not noticeably smoky, the grilled sardines with chermoula spices came and went without leaving a memory, the pastry "cigars" with apricots and cinnamon lamb were spring rolls, unpleasantly sweet but rescued by a yoghurt dip. From the charcoal grill, the Moroccan lamb fillet with cumin was an OK shish of tender pink lamb chunks, lightly charred and served on basmati rice. From the oven, a tagine of chicken with preserved lemon and olives was overcooked, the chicken dry and fibrous, undermined by a layer of too-sweet caramelised onions.
It wasn't a meal to dwell over, except for one thing: the service. Our maitresse d' apologised for the cocktails and knocked them off the bill. The first waitress keenly recommended a wine and was upset when we didn't utterly love it. Our second waitress, a Turkish beauty, recommended places to go in Istanbul. They were all charming and enthusiastic beyond the call of duty. Feeling I should order a pudding (with a sinking heart), I followed the Turkish lady inside the main restaurant, where a different level of sophistication was apparent: blood-red walls, pink glass columns, a bar with ruched curtains and a mirror ceiling. Suddenly we were in the Del'Aziz bakery, and how one's spirits lifted at the sight of the home-made breads and gateaux and strawberry-flans.
I opted for almond tart and shared it, back at the al fresco tables. It was huge, squishy and excellent, the pastry moist, the surface a blissful congress of almonds, nuts and icing sugar. It was a blast of Mediterranean richness, home-made with love; it made me wonder – why bother serving so much generic mezze, when their puddings are so uniquely good?
I suspect the owners of Del'Aziz are trying to become Morocco's answer to Carluccio's, with its shop of goodies, its bakery and all-day fare, and they're trying to do too much. The food here isn't exciting enough to stand out from a thousand other mezze joints – but the excellence of their puddings might give them a clue about where to go in future.
Del'Aziz, 11 Bermondsey Sq, London SE1 (020-7407 2991)
About £70 for two with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"