We all need to get away from time to time. The freezing and wind-swept streets of London encourage thoughts of distant lands, exotic fabrics, tooled metal lamps, Moorish tiles and the gentle splash of a fountain. Perhaps a quick trip to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, or one might harbour romantic dreams of the tantalising foods in the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh.
So plan your trip. Cut through Chinatown, hang a left at the top of Gerrard Place and a right down Frith Street and your journey ends at no.45, just opposite Little Italy, right next door to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. This isn’t a culinary take on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And whilst you won’t be transported through hanging fur coats to a snowscape illuminated by a lamp-post, you will find yourself in a rather tasteful corner of North Africa with more than a hint of Southern Spain.
Combining the culinary traditions of two continents is quite common. We enjoy fusion and pan-Asian meals with no thought to the marriage of disparate ingredients. The liaison between Spain and North Africa is, however, one that has endured for centuries. Indeed Spain was part of the great Islamic empire that enjoyed its European dominion for around four centuries. At the end of that religious adventure Spain retained many of the tastes of its cultured conqueror, and the world of Islam mourned the loss of those fertile lands.
El Cantara has only been open a few months but it has already won a host of regulars. Its menu is short but has wide appeal for those who enjoy the casual conviviality of Spanish tapas and for others who relish a traditional Moroccan tagine. It’s the lunch-time haunt of couples who want an express meal to revive themselves for further retail pursuits, but equally for those larger groups who deck their table with communal dishes of Paella. Yes, that’s perhaps the ethos here – sharing.
The menu offered various meal deals for a single diner or a crowd. There were only two of us so we opted for a free-style graze of inter-continental small plates to start. Hoummus was here as expected, but so were Sweet Potato Croquetas, which were a delightfully different version of the classic fried tapas found all over the Iberian Peninsula. Merguez and Feta in Philo Pastry gave a nod to the southern coast of the Mediterranean, but the stars of the spread were the Mushrooms in Garlic Oil. The smokey flavour was remarkable and those fungi exuded juices that cried out to be, and were indeed, mopped by warm flatbread. An occasion when the word ‘yummy’, not often used on this site of exquisite wordsmithery, is quite apt.
The main dishes included Lamb Tagine served in a rustic and conically-hatted eponymous dish. A bowl of plain couscous was all that was needed to make this a complete meal. Tender meat and aromatic spices. Moroccan cooking draws from sweet spices rather than the more fiery palate of South Asia.
My Skewers of Cubed Lamb had absorbed the delicate char of the grill. The meat was succulent and unadorned, being just lightly seasoned and marinated in oil and parsley. Rice and a salsa were its accompaniments, with a ramekin of mild sauce to add a delicate piquancy.
Dessert was a favourite. Crema Catalana is the Spanish (a Catalan would probably be incandescent with rage at the association with his larger neighbour) equivalent of the French Crème Brulée. Crema is, in my opinion, superior to crème brulée. The texture is silky yet more unctuous and decadent. Rather a rich custard than an apologetic jelly.
Lunch at El Cantara was a delicious confection of foods nibbled during animated conversation. A meal of fragrant dishes enjoyed in a charming restaurant of earth tones, classic tiles, intricately wrought metalwork and Marrakesh-inspired style. I‘ll return to linger on the Shisha terrace, bathe in perfumed smoke and probably order some more of those mushrooms …if the snow leaves off!
45 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4SD
Telephone: 020 7734 6868
Visit El Cantara here
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018