I’ve had two vastly different eating experiences in London in the past fortnight.
The first was something familiar to most of you – I had one (or five) too many beers, and stumbled in a dishevelled fashion into ‘Charcoal Express’, a flawlessly dystopian kebab shop opposite my house. I went for a large mixed kebab. I could feel the regret before I even took my first bite. Being honest, I could feel the regret at the same time as the man’s greasy fingers clasped around the edge of my crisp, ten pound note.
My other experience was visiting Le Menar, a North African restaurant in Fitzrovia. I mention the kebab shop to highlight the fact that North Africa (or Maghreb if you’re a geography graduate) gets a pretty bad rap sometimes. Invariably dragged into the same arena as your greasy kebab shop, or simplified to hummus and tagine, it’s a cuisine that often doesn’t get the praise it deserves, particularly considering that this area was one of the ancient centres of the spice trade.
Head Chef Vernon Samuels taps into that history while resisting the urge to be caught up in tradition, instead bringing bright, fresh flavours from different parts of the world back to Maghreb. The smoked lamb prosciutto is packed with flavour – draped languorously over a bed of figs and scattered with za’atar. The Lebanese squid is slightly overcooked, but comes laid on a bed of spicy-sweet red peppers and harissa, providing a sharp counterpoint to the squid.
The spiced lamb rack comes out with a gorgeously charred crust, nestled in a bed of smoked aubergine moutabal. The meat is succulent, and perfectly pink through the middle. I can’t help but salivate as my knife slides through the outer skin. The marinade is sharp and pungent, and the moutabal redolent with garlic. This is how meat should be cooked; it’s a far cry from a greasy spit of compressed donner meat, oozing with gristle.
We also shoot for the Moroccan style sea bass. I can only assume Vernon has been heavily invested in the Iliad while dreaming up this dish, because it looks part-meal, part-homage to Poseidon, obtuse katalfi wafers criss-crossed on top of it. This is a great piece of fish; the rose harissa and za’atar acting as a supporting cast, leaving the sea bass to do the talking on its own. I think Poseidon would probably be pretty happy, too.
We finish off with deep fried vanilla ice cream, left sat upon a small pile of medjool dates in butterscotch sauce. I can’t help but think sticky-toffee pudding without the pudding. The dates are great.
In fact, all of Le Menar’s produce is great. Each item on the menu is well thought-out, well balanced, and well sourced. The atmosphere of the place is your classic low-lighting, low-seating Moroccan-chic, but it’s done tastefully and without cut corners. And that’s the same with the food. A main will set you back between £14-17, but I must say, I’m pretty glad to hand over my cash this time.
55 Cleveland Street
Tel: 020 7436 8916