Monday, 14 September 2009


It’s tough being a legend. Let’s call it the Pietersen problem: whatever you do, however brilliant, no one’s ever that impressed. “You may have scored 90,” they say, “but why wasn’t it 100?” This, as regular readers might imagine, is not a problem with which I’m regularly faced (I’ve never made 90, and it may take an attack consisting entirely of six-year-olds for me ever to get there), but for a restaurant of the status of Moro it must be a constant peril. For over a decade, Moro has been one of the brightest lights of the London restaurant scene: always the choice of the in-crowd, it picks up Readers’ Awards like sweets and is garlanded with the plaudits of every chef from here to Clerkenwell.

But here’s why the restaurant game’s tough: no-one ever remembers the good bits. Readers will always forgive Donna Tartt The Little Friend, woeful as it was, because The Secret History still stands on the shelf as a testament to her brilliance; Rothko lovers will overlook the Seagram murals in favour of a body of work that leaves no doubt as to his talent. When a restaurant, though, is praised to the skies, when diners talk of it in hushed tones lest the word creep out, it has to carry on being brilliant day after day. Culinary history is littered, like the kitchen floor after Saturday service, with tales of once remarkable restaurants that have slipped into mediocrity, fading to only a glimmer of the early excitement that once made them great.

It’s not just tall poppy syndrome, although that – especially in Britain, I suspect – plays a part. Harden’s recent laceration of Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road shows that the desire to bring down the mighty – and gather column inches on the way – continues unabated, but for the regular punter there’s something much simpler at work. Unlike a writer’s first, great, novel, which we can read in the bath for time immemorial while the later failures lie dusting on the shelf, a restaurant’s early success is only a memory for those lucky enough to get an early tip, and sheer frustration for those of us who visit once the passion has dimmed.

It takes something special to achieve the combination of excitement and consistency that marks out the truly great. I’ve written before on these pages of the impact of expectations on our experience: the finest and most memorable meals are most likely to occur when you are least expecting them, when you’ve stumbled down a back street in small town Spain rather than saved up all year for the starched tablecloths and starchier service of London’s finest.

Sometimes, though – and all too rarely – comes a restaurant which renders my theories defunct, and matches in sheer, unflashy talent the scale of its reputation. Perhaps I had suppressed my expectations, but Moro both excited and impressed me in equal measure; I could write paeans of praise to either element – an exciting new restaurant with bold, exciting, new flavours, or a neighbourhood staple, confidently producing old-time favourites – but to combine both leaves me gasping for adjectives of acclaim.

The room itself captures something of Moro’s essential spirit: simple whitewashed walls, with an open kitchen and functional, Bistro-style furniture put me firmly in mind of St John, one of my favourite lunchtime hideaways (anyone that can make me think of St John before feeding me is on to a winner, evangelicals bearing cupcakes notwithstanding). The room is filled to bursting, and ablaze with the conversation of a room enjoying its food, and – more importantly – each other; this is a place you could come merely to bask in the knowledge that eating good food, together, laughing, with plenty of sherry, survives even in the most difficult of times. The atmosphere is heightened by brisk, efficient yet charming service by a wonderful waitress – think Kylie’s mum with a steely hint of Ricky Ponting – who explained and glossed the menu with the lightest of touches. The bread – the famous bread! – was predictably delicious (here’s one for the consistency camp), and a half bottle of impeccably chilled sherry was the perfect way to whet the appetite.

At this point, of course, I was already charting out the course of my review: big name, great atmosphere, good food and decent wine; a Thursday night favourite for the ages, with nothing to scare the horses and a guaranteed evening out. How wrong I was; and rarely have I more enjoyed being wrong.

I started with harira, a traditional Moroccan soup of lamb, lentils, chickpeas and vermicelli. So far so good: good, warming, rustic soup. But so much more: Moro’s harira is the kind of soup that you’d cross town for; that you’d eat curled up in front of the fire of a Sunday evening; that you’d order for your last meal. If each dish has certain spots, certain notes, it has to hit, this hit every single one: I could eat this every day in a never-ending vat and I’d never get bored. Just as Moro itself effortlessly combines consistency and excitement, so the harira was at once comforting yet thrilling, lulling with its richness before surprising with its spice. I was so wrapped up in my own private delight that I barely noticed the other starters, but a grilled red pepper salad with cumin, preserved lemon and anchovies looked a picture – and apparently didn’t disappoint on tasting – and mojama (thin slices of salt-dried tuna) with a purslane salad was ‘very pleasant yet unremarkable’.

The main courses, though, were where the real action started. My wood-roasted pork with wrinkled potatoes and mojo rojo was, by some distance, the finest pork I’ve eaten in a very long time: thin slices topped with the lightest, crispest crackling I’ve ever seen came accompanied by a fiery mojo rojo sauce of chilli and garlic, which was delicious with the potatoes and enlivened the pork. Sardines with fava bean purée and white cabbage and radish salad were superb, with a Manzanilla-like salty sea aroma and a powerful hit of chilli and fresh herbs that lifted the dish from the classical to the ethereal. Other dishes were too far down the table for me to reach without risking both dignity and wine glasses, so in the interests of decorum I must rely on the exclamations of pleasure that drifted from those with the whole baked bream and the grilled lamb.

Restaurants can succeed in so many ways: from the lunchtime staple to the whizz-bang excess of the latest Michelin-starred wunderkind, there are any numbers of routes to the top. Most crucially, though, is the ability to inspire emotion beyond simple satisfaction, appreciation beyond cool acclaim, and – in the very best – an excitement beyond logic. The passion in the kitchen, and the sheer white-hot belief in the principles of the place, injects this very excitement into everything in the room: the food is technically spot-on yet takes risks; the wine list is comprehensive yet unusual; the staff professional yet relaxed. Moro’s status in the pantheon of London restaurants is already secure, and no-one could blame them for beginning to relax, to settle into the steady routine of the old stager enjoying a well-earned pay day.

But who was there at the door to wave us into the night, in his whites with a mile-wide smile and an easy charm at midnight on a Friday? Sam Clark. It’s that kind of dedication, that kind of passion for a calling that is, every day, a true labour of love, that brings the exceptional to life. Applaud it and treasure it: this is a kitchen on jaw-dropping, heart-stopping form.

34-36 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE
020 7833 8336

Food: 9

Drink: 7
Service: 7
Atmosphere: 8
Total: 31