Sketches of Spain

Spanish practices and Arabian nights at Sadlers Wells
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Whoever last predicted that Middle Eastern or North African food would be the next big thing must be feeling very pleased with him or herself, because all the signs are that the food of this region is becoming very hot indeed.

First, Londoners began to discover the Lebanese take-aways and juice bars of Olympia, Marylebone and the Edgware Road and to take note of a new generation of cheap, local Moroccan restaurants in such unlikely spots as Golders Green and Shepherd's Bush. Now, suddenly, "Arabic" food is being taken up by West End chefs - the ones whose names we are expected to remember. Cooks like Alistair Little and Anthony Worral-Thompson paved the way by including the odd Moorish flourish on their menus, but Bruno Loubet was the first to devote a restaurant entirely to the cooking of the Middle East and North Africa when he converted Bistro Bruno last autumn. He has been followed in the last month by Momo, off Regent Street, and now another new place, Moro (no relation), in the ever trendier Clerkenwell. We ate at Moro on a Thursday, one week after it had opened, and liked it so much that we tried to go back on the Saturday. Alas, it was closed. Stylish, laid-back and inexpensive, it is one of those very rare places that had me wishing that I didn't just write about restaurants but had a hand in one.

Moro occupies the ground floor of an old shop on Exmouth Market - a run-down market street about two minutes walk from Sadlers Wells. The conversion is, like the food, light and modern, but with an Andalucian twist given by its unvarnished wooden floor, cream and green walls, banquettes and bolsters, and large wooden-framed mirrors above a long tin tapas bar. It's Arabian Nights with set designs by Terrence Conran. The open-plan kitchen displays a handsome kiln-like wood-burning oven. Dried herb and spices - peppers, okra, and chilli - hang from the range.

Moro is the creation of a young, twenty-something team which helps account for their enthusiasm, if not their cool-headedness. The three head chefs and part- owners - Jake Hodges, Sam Clark, and Sam Clark (the last two, confusingly, married) - met in the kitchen of the River Cafe. When questioned, they were unable to offer any reason why they had turned for inspiration to the cooking of Spain, Morocco and places further East, other than that they liked it. For the time being, the menu is short and relatively cheap: a three-course meal with half a bottle of house wine comes to about pounds 23. Word travels fast, and the place was already three-quarters full on the night we were there.

I began with thin slices of mojama - raw, cured tuna fish, which tastes like a fishier version of bresaola - and a caper and rocket salad. My companion went for Serano ham, which came with young, tender broadbeans. These were both tasty, if simple, dishes, but others provide the kitchen with more of a challenge. Crab bric, for instance, a variation of the more familiar mutton bric of Tunisia, looks like becoming a signature dish: crab, cod, and various spices are encased in layers of delicate puff pastry and then deep fried. The chefs learned the art of this difficult pastry while on holiday in North Africa and are rightly proud of it - those who know more about it than I do judged it "the real thing". A plate of meze - aubergine, falafel, chard stalks with tahini and a fiery chilli paste - came with a circle of flat bread. It was made on the premises, as was the sourdough we were offered when we first arrived - that and a jug, not a bottle, of iced tap water.

Second courses did not disappoint, either. A bowl of crisp, roasted vegetables - beetroot, turnips, fennel, onion and chickpeas - came moistened with an infusion of cumin, coriander, chilli - like the juice from a good couscous. The Norfolk duck was about as English as you can get, but an Hispanic touch was added by the accompanying Moros y Cristianos - beans and rice - and a sweet-and-sour sauce of quince and sherry vinegar. Sherry, too, is splashed over a deliciously toffeyish Malaga raisin ice-cream.

My bowl of home-made yoghurt came scattered with nut and raisin syrup and added a healthy, but in no sense austere, finishing touch to an elegant and hearty meal. Moro's wine list does not feature New World wines, which makes sense in the context, but it seems odd not to have given Spanish wines more space than they get.

Restaurant critics are often upbraided for reviewing restaurants in their first difficult weeks, and fairly so. Yet, as Moro shows, it is possible for even a relatively inexperienced team to get things pretty nearly right from the first night. The secret lies, in part, in the happy design of the place and, in part, on keeping the food simple; Moro's chefs are smart enough to know that they have plenty of time ahead of them to finesse more complex, subtler dishes

Moro 34-36 Exmouth Market, London EC1 (0171-833 8336). Open 12.30pm-10.30pm Mon-Fri. Closed, for the time being, at weekends. All credit cards accepted. Wheelchair access

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