Forget Casablanca - London is now the place to eat Moroccan

It started with Momo; then came Moro. Suddenly Arabian-style eateries are all the rage, writes Andrew Tuck
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Forget Italian, Thai and Pacific Rim. The only cuisine that fashionable foodies should be seen devouring this summer is Moroccan. As London bakes under sweltering skies, its restaurateurs are frantically adding Arab specialities to their menus and creating interiors that take you straight to the kasbah.

The trend started in April when Mourad, the Algerian-born owner of Paris's hit 404 restaurant, launched the 100-seater Momo in a narrow dead-end road off Regent Street. Within days it was the talk of London as restaurant critics queued up to praise the food, the decor - and the sexily dressed young staff.

Today, only those who can face booking days ahead and don't mind being told when to leave ("You have two hours if you come on the first sitting"), should even contemplate trying to book a table. Then came the similarly named but unrelated Moro in Clerkenwell, which is run by ex-chefs from the River Cafe and bakes its own Arab bread on the premises to serve alongside its Moroccan dishes.

Now, everyone is getting in on the act, with chefs across the city adding spicy and aromatic Moroccan dishes to their menus. Dishes such as pastilla (pigeon pie with sweet pastry), vine leaves stuffed with feta cheese, and tajine (Arab stew) have caught the imagination of not just critics and customers but also top chefs such as Bruno Loubet and Antony Worrall- Thompson.

Now comes news that Mogens Tholstrup, the man who, at his restaurants Daphne's and The Collection makes a mint out of the culinary fixations of the capital's ladies-who-lunch, has decided to go Moroccan for his next venture: Pasha, which opens in Gloucester Road, South Kensington, in November, is promising "Moroccan dishes with a twist" while the poor waiters are threatened with outfits of "simple hooded Jalaba and black Moroccan slippers". Mourad says that Momo has been so successful because "it's completely original, the food is healthy, and it's affordable - our average spend per head is pounds 32". He also points out that there are lots of British people - just over 100,000 last year - who have been to Morocco for their holidays and now want to eat the food without jumping on a plane.

And while he claims to hate knocking the opposition, he also believes that his colourful and sensual restaurant, where the aim is to attract everyone from cab drivers to supermodels, is an antidote to the stark minimalist interiors and uniformly up-market crowds found in most fashionable establishments. Indeed. in the harem-like downstairs bar the policy is to discourage men in suits ("we don't want City types doing business down there") as well as lads in football shirts. Diners who do manage to bag a table and pass all the sartorial tests are raving over the food and punchy Algerian wines.

At Moro it's a similar story. Again the food is affordable and the Arab influences inspire a more democratic atmosphere, free of the snobbishness often associated with smart English-owned restaurants. Manager Michael Benyan watches over a dining-room that pulls in staff from the nearby offices of fashion magazines such as The Face, Arena and Frank, as well as traders from the local market. But he insists that it's the food that's the winning ingredient in Moro's recipe for success. "The food is very healthy. We don't fry anything, lots of dishes are roasted in the wood- fired oven, everything is fantastically fresh and it's all at a very good price."

Claudia Roden, the leading Middle Eastern food writer, also thinks health concerns are helping the Moroccan boom. "It really is perfect: a good balance between grain, pulses and veg, with meat eaten in a minor way, and no butter, just groundnut oil. It's one of the best cuisines in the world when it is done well."

Caroline Stacey, of Time Out and the Independent, has been among the restaurant critics promoting this cuisine and she has a different explanation of the discovery of Moroccan food. "I think it may have been triggered by gay people. Morocco has always appealed to gay holidaymakers, reinforced perhaps when Edina and Patsy went there in Absolutely Fabulous, and they have returned inspired by the food and style and have set about making it fashionable."

The influence of Morocco is being seen beyond the reaches of the kitchen, with Moroccan-inspired homes regularly appearing in interiors magazines. But another food critic, who chose to remain anonymous, thought he knew the real reason Londoners are revelling in their Arabian nights: "It's wonderful food and in London, unlike Morocco, you can eat it without being hassled and hit upon."