Restaurants: Someone got them starters
Simply Red's Mick Hucknall hits the right note with lunch in a Lebanese restaurant. Photographs by Matthew Mawson
Saturday 15 August 1998
It was useless to protest that I was meeting him because he is a famous food-lover, and an expert cook to boot. His conquests were admiringly enumerated, from Steffi Graff to Catherine Zeta Jones, and someone remembered a kiss-and-tell story in which a former partner had described him as a lover with the "strength and stamina of a panther". Even my mother went all wobbly at the prospect.
Mick chose the venue for our lunch himself, rejecting my own suggestions with the legendary single- mindedness that has kept Simply Red at the top for over 13 years. There didn't seem to be anything particularly romantic about his choice, it has to be said. Maroush is one of the best of the many Lebanese restaurants on London's Edgware Road, a bustling thoroughfare as grimy and traffic- snarled as any in downtown Beirut.
A group of men smoking huge hubble-bubble pipes at a pavement table watched me as I chained up my bicycle outside the restaurant - I'd cycled because I felt that that Mick, as a committed Labour supporter, would approve of my integrated transport policy. On the down side, however, it did mean that I was probably the only woman ever to turn up for a date with Mick Hucknall wearing cycle clips.
There are six branches of Maroush in central London, but this is the longest-established. Upstairs is a narrow cafe-juice bar, its booth seating filled by day with families and tourists, and by night with swinging parties of Middle Eastern youngsters. Kebabs are cooked over open charcoal grills and fresh pittas are made to order, emerging puffy and fragrant from the oven.
When Mick arrived, quietly charming in semi-beard and snugly tailored grey suit, he guided me downstairs to the restaurant with an almost imperceptible touch of hand to elbow, while solicitously carrying my glass for me. So that's how it's done, I thought.
The main dining room is anonymous, low-ceilinged and slightly claustrophobic, even when, as on the day of our visit, it was more or less deserted. We were immediately brought the customary bowl of raw vegetables - a shiny still-life which included a green pepper, a head of lettuce and a clutch of baseball-sized radishes. It seemed quite unthinkable to actually pick something up and eat it, although given the whole panther thing, it might have got things off to a swinging start if I had opted to gnaw on the cucumber.
Mick explained that he'd chosen Maroush not because it was a regular haunt but because he loves Lebanese food. "There's something so quick and fresh and clean about it," he enthused, explaining that he often pops in for a take-away on his way home to his mansion in Surrey. Otherwise, though, he isn't big on eating out.
"I've been travelling for 12 years," he said, "and I've probably been to the finest restaurants in every country in the world. So when I finally came off the road, the last thing I wanted to do was carry on eating in restaurants."
The menu lists dishes in English and in Arabic, and Mick immediately and without consultation ordered a mezze for both of us, in what sounded to me like a credible Lebanese accent. When they arrived, he laid into them enthusiastically, folding them into the accompanying pitta bread, while reminiscing about a mind-blowing falafel sandwich he'd once enjoyed in Tel Aviv.
Maroush's falafel were fresh and moist, and the tabbouleh much greener and leafier than the more familiar Greek version, containing lots of mint and parsley and the merest sprinkling of cracked wheat. The only meat mezze was sujuk, a spicy grilled sausage coloured a livid red. Best of all was the moutabal, a creamy dip more commonly known as baba ghanoush, made with grilled aubergine, tahina and lemon juice.
"I can't work out how they get that smoky flavour," Mick ruminated. "I've debated whether to ask them, but then, if I knew, I might stop coming here."
His enthusiasm for cooking, which he describes as an "obsession", stems from his Manchester childhood - he was raised by his father after his mother left home when he was three.
"My father always had a passion for simple food, and I remember him lecturing me about the freshness of an egg he was frying - `Look at that yolk! It's standing to attention!'"
Mick's own speciality is Italian food - he has had a home in Milan for six years - though he can also turn his hand to Spanish, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Since moving to Surrey, he has started growing herbs and vegetables, and even cures his own vine leaves for dolmades.
"When tomatoes are in season, I'll make huge amounts of sauce and freeze it, and I make gallons of my own stock." You're a proper cook, I commented admiringly. You've really got the rhythms. "Oh yes, I've got the rhythms all right," he murmured back suggestively.
Though Maroush serves alcohol, unlike some of the Lebanese restaurants in the area, we stuck to soft drinks, with Mick opting for a carrot juice, thereby confirming those playground rumours about what happens to your hair if you eat too many carrots. My mango juice was of such a viscous consistency that I had to make vigorous pumping movements with my cheeks to suck any of it up through my straw - again, possibly a plus-point, from Mick's point of view.
The mezze were filling enough to have been a meal in themselves, but we called for the menu again. "Today, I'm going to pay tribute to Paul Gascoigne and have a kebab," Mick announced. Maybe we should order something more unusual, I suggested, like brains, or testicles. "You can order the testicles, darlin'," he replied. "I've got some of me own, and I'm very happy with them, thank you. I certainly don't wanna eat them!"
The mixed kebab we shared was a first-class selection of tender and fragrant lamb, chicken and kofte, accompanied by a garlic sauce and sprinkled with sumac, a purple, cinnamon-like spice. "Top quality," was Mick's happy verdict. Beneath his cosmopolitan veneer, he's still extremely English, even down to his secret baked bean habit. "I had a tin on Monday, for breakfast, with some Sainsbury's wholemeal bread," he confessed.
By now, I had started to convince myself that we were really hitting it off and, at the mention of Sainsbury's, teased him that I couldn't imagine him wheeling his trolley around the supermarket.
"Of course I do! I'm totally domesticated!" he laughed. So where's your nearest branch of Sainsbury's? I wondered, realising that I wasn't sure exactly he lives. Suddenly he looked nervous. "Oh, it's about two miles away from me house," he replied cagily, and I realised with a flush of embarrassment that he had momentarily regarded me as a potential stalker.
With fresh fruit and mint teas - expertly poured by Mick from a great height - lunch came to pounds 48. His limo was standing by, but before he climbed in, he popped in to a nearby delicatessen, to stock up on Turkish bread for the freezer.
As he loaded armfuls into his basket, I said, "Golly, you must have a big freezer", imagining something out of The Long Good Friday. "I've got three!" he winked back.
No doubt full of naked supermodels hanging from hooks by their ankles, I reflected grumpily, as I slipped on my cycle clips and watched the limo purr away to an undisclosed destination somewhere in Surrey
Maroush, 21 Edgware Road, London W2 (0171-723 0773). Midday - 2am daily. Music seven nights a week. Disabled access upstairs only. All major cards. Simply Red's new album, `Blue', is available on eastwest.
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