Momo, restaurant review: Maghrebi dishes, exotic back then, are now the stuff of al desko lunches

For her final review, our critic goes back to where it all began in 1997

The shadowy lighting blurs the ravages of the past two decades
The shadowy lighting blurs the ravages of the past two decades

I went to Momo for my first review for the Independent's magazine (see link below). The Moroccan hotspot in Mayfair was so new that they hadn't got around to putting a handle on the door, leaving me – as I wrote at the time – scrabbling frantically like the first Mrs Rochester to get in.

Inside, Momo was a different world. Somewhere between a nightclub and a souk, with throbbing music and gorgeous staff, it was both thrillingly exotic and completely late-1990s London. We lounged like provincial pashas, feasted on duck tagine and pastilla, and thrilled when the lights dropped, the music surged and the staff led the room in rhythmic clapping as the cool young owner dance-carried a cake to George Lucas at a nearby table.

It was such a lushly vivid scene that one of my guests that night, the film director Sharon Maguire, recreated it a couple of years later for Bridget Jones's Diary, returning to film Bridget partying there with her friends. And that was pretty much the last time either of us went back to Momo. In fact, it's been a few years since anyone so much as mentioned the place to me.

So when deciding where to go for this, my last review for this final edition of The Independent Magazine, I toyed with other venues which might better fit the occasion. Inamo in Covent Garden, perhaps, where orders are placed on interactive tables and technology has taken the place of boring old analogue waiters? Maybe the Clove Club, where a group of maverick talents is testing new funding models in the form of a prepaid online booking system? Or an office outing to Pharmacy 2, the new launch from our own Mark Hix in Damien Hirst's Lambeth gallery, a bang-on synthesis of the homely and the futuristic.

In the end, though, it had to be Momo. It's a survivor, still proudly independent, an outlier that went on to become part of the establishment. It has spawned something bigger and arguably more successful than itself, in the form of Sketch. And it has been influential – the harbinger of a new wave of stylish Maghrebi and Middle Eastern dining. If Momo isn't quite the hotspot it once was, we at The Independent know better than most that offerings of wonderful quality can survive for years despite being overlooked by the wider public.

When Momo opened in 1997, Heddon Street was deserted at night, its offices and galleries dark. But now it's Mayfair's own food quarter: pedestrianised, with piped music booming down a street lined with restaurants, their terraces busy even on a cold night. Fruity sheesha smoke envelops us as we squeeze through Momo's packed terrace, where owner Mourad Mazouz stands kibitzing – or whatever the Arabic equivalent is – with his guests, just as he did two decades earlier. Only now the hip young outsider is a grizzled industry veteran, who recognises one of us from the school run.

Magically, we're shown to the same table we sat at all those years ago. Sharon is with me, of course, along with a few other regular companions. The restaurant has aged better than some of us, it has to be said, the shadowy lighting blurring the ravages of the past two decades, and the low-slung cushioned benches proving welcomely orthopaedic. The menu hasn't changed that much either, with a scattering of ceviches and tartares joining the Maghrebi dishes. So exotic back then, they are now the stuff of office al desko lunches.

After a round of Momo Specials – vodka-based mojitos – the dishes start coming; delicate savoury pastries, smoky dips, sweetly spiced tagines with fine-grained couscous, pastilla – that weirdly delicious pigeon pie dredged with icing sugar. The food strikes me as just as good as it seemed first time around, if not better. But I'm having too much fun to make notes. What a relief it's going to be, after so much sub-table scribbling, not to need to manufacture an opinion about dinner any more.

As we're sipping our mint teas, firmly double-parked down Memory Lane, the lights drop, the music swells and the rhythmic clapping begins. Out comes a cake, though it isn't for us, and Momo no longer does his knee-bending, finger-clicking dance. Still, it's a lovely way to bring 19 unexpected years to a close.

So long live Momo – still independent, still fun. And long live the Independent spirit, wherever it's found. Thank you for having me.

Food ****
Ambience *****
Service *****

Momo, 25 Heddon Street, London W1 (020 7434 4040). Around £40 a head

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