Clos Maggiore

just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled in to Clos Maggiore with this dish

So what exactly is it that people look for when they go out to eat? What do we want from a restaurant?

What we want is somewhere that, looking in from the outside, comes across as the kind of place you would quite fancy being in. That means peering in through the window and happening upon a well lit room, preferably full – or close to being so, with the patrons appearing as though they’re having a thoroughly pleasant time of it.

If you’re unlucky ‘that place’ might be something like this:

“I’m so dreadfully sorry, we’re full” would come the fawningly disingenuous response from the Maître D: a Humble Heep; an Honest Iago; an altogether loathsome specimen whose ill-concealed smirk and unwavering glare actually convey, “I’m so dreadfully sorry, we shall only be fleecing fraudulently socialist Latin American dictators and Arab princes tonight. This isn’t really your sort of place”. Oh well, never fancied a bottle of that Romanée-Conti 1978 at 15 grand a pop anyway.

So now you are in, you are seated. All is well. Except it isn’t because your table is hidden away down a corridor, past a cleaning cupboard and slap bang outside the lavs in and out of which a parade of boorish Jeremy Clarksons stumble all evening long, shaking themselves dry as they pass your table and return to their seats. The waitress avoids all eye contact; the sommelier’s body odour is more toxic than ricin; you’ve got a wobbly table; there’s a light flickering above you; the menu is either mired in a time when citrus fruits were considered acceptable as an hors d’oeuvre (orange juice or grapefruit halves, anyone?), or else it’s all about needlessly tossy, irritating ‘concepts’ (a fishdog is not an on-trend menu must-have, it’s a goddam fish finger goddam sandwich); the starter is straight out of a tin; the main is straight out of a microwave and you’re supposed to be on a date but thus far the evening has gone so badly that even Pepé le Pew would be reconsidering his chances of being definitely on for some action later.

Hopefully your evening will go a little better. The two questions posed at the outset might more usefully be paraphrased as What Makes A Good Restaurant? In many ways, What Makes A Good Restaurant is Clos Maggiore. What makes it especially ‘good’ is so cunningly, cleverly simple: it is the ‘restaurant’ bit. No gimmicks, fads or trends, it is a place where you go to eat and have a nice time. That is all.

In one sense Clos Maggiore might be considered resolutely unfashionable. It is the kind of place that ‘Nobody’ goes to, ‘Nobody’ tweets about. Yet the place is always full. Full of people who enjoy going out to restaurants, who quite simply derive pleasure from the social niceties, and niceness, of all that entails. Mostly, it is couples enjoying a quiet meal in a place that ticks all the boxes.

Edward VIII favoured the private upstairs rooms at Rules for a quick knee trembler with Wallis Simpson while Nobu was the setting for Boris Becker’s broom-cupboard caperings. Clos Maggiore on the other hand has imperceptibly managed to win over the public as Harden’s “London’s Most Romantic Restaurant” of 2013. Toptable’s voters have gone a considerable step further by bestowing it with “Most Romantic in the UK”. There must be something in the Beaujolais as Wine Spectator recognises it as having one of London’s best wine lists and according to Hugh Johnson, “the wine is worth a week of anybody’s time”. Not bad without there being a single blogger in sight.

“But it is a romantic place” is the widely held aphorism. Yes it is, albeit in a very conventional sense: ideal for that dinner à deux intime under subdued lighting in a well turned-out room. The brief was to recreate the inns and bistros of provençale France. The rear conservatory, with its striking overhanging cherry blossoms is both visually sumptuous and the place to request a seat. While there may not quite be a sultry evening sky perfumed with rosemary and lavender and resonating with chirruping cicadas, it is still one of the better dining rooms in the West End. The “climate hot and dry, the colours vivid, the terrain varied from plains to mountains…brilliance and light and vivid of landscapes, yellow – old gold” of Van Gogh’s Provence is something truly romantic and evocative. Has Clos Maggiore perhaps missed a trick in not trying to recreate this instead?

From the outside it looks a bit like That Posh Bistro On The High Street, and in a sense it is. At its worst it you might glance at its frontage and consider it a bit Market Town Tory with its blue-blooded scarlet frontage and chocolate-box potted shrubberies. At its best it is rather smart: that Friday Evening place you might dress up a bit for. Rather than being pastorally provençal it’s perhaps the sort of place you might come across on Paris’s Rue Saint-Louis en L’Ile.

When it comes to the food, the more quixotic elements of the South are eschewed in favour of a tried-and-tested route through French cooking. Nonetheless head chef Marcellin Marc, formerly of double Michelin Starred Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, and his team have fashioned a tight, well-balanced and altogether very approachable menu.

A garden herb salad starter was reasonable; the requisite sweetness of the greenery was there despite being given the treatment by a truffle vinaigrette. I’m not really a fan of this. Truffle oil is this decade’s balsamic vinegar – a faux-condiment that now seems to labour as contagiously as a TB epidemic in kitchens up and down the country in an attempt to ‘posh-up’ things that have no need of being poshed-up. I would have preferred the real thing. You can keep your dressings. Nothing lifts a plate of chaste, infant leaves and spring veg like a dissolute mountain of actual, freshly grated black truffle. But then that’s just me.

Plump scallops with seaweed butter was a top notch dish with a delicate, polite intimation of the marine. A confit duck leg with foie gras, pain d’épice and poached rhubarb is a tried-and-tested combination but it is so for a reason. Each part of the dish managed to elevate every other part.

Sea bass came with an aromatic fennel salad – another combination typique where the herb’s lustrous flamboyance worked as a foil to the mildness of the bass. Just as Prometheus was said to have smuggled fire to humans inside the hollow wand of a fennel stalk, it was as if a small corner of the Mediterranean was smuggled into Clos Maggiore with this dish. Breast of guinea fowl with garden vegetables was fine, lovely. Just a fairly nice bit of bird with a few veg.

Dessert was ‘Paris Brest’ with Praline Ice Cream. It is choux pastry with a praline cream filling: kind of like a cross between a Victoria Sponge and a profiterole.

So what about that wine list? With around 2,000 wines in total it was almost like settling down with a good book for the evening. But you’ve got to go du pays really haven’t you? So a Southern Rhône red that sat stylistically between a Châteauneuf and a Gigondas and a fraction of the price. Spicy, rustic, job done.

You will have a great time at Clos Maggiore and you will enjoy good, polite, formal French bistro cooking. You want to go out for a great dinner, right? On a date? Off to the theatre? Fancy a nice, proper restaurant with proper table linen and a proper wine list? Clos Maggiore is the proverbial hidden gem of the West End.

Opinion: 8/10

Clos Maggiore
33 King Street
Covent Garden
WC2E 8JD

Telephone: 020 7379 9696
Website: http://www.closmaggiore.com
Email: enquiries@closmaagiore.com
Twitter: @ClosMaggioreWC2

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Café Mauresque

I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice

So Easter has passed by once again, except nobody actually noticed as a result of it still being winter (at the time of writing). Not that it is ever much to get worked up about here in the UK. We do try, though. We endeavour to shove a bit of crass, Christmassy commercialism Easter’s way but it never really enters into the spirit. Try and lend it a bit of festive cheer but Easter just doesn’t want to know. Usually at Easter time you can be energised by the rising sap of spring: lambs, chicks, daffodils, blossom, all that; nature once again becoming green and fecund; the hazy burr of lazy summer days on their way once more. Much, genuinely, to feel good about. But this year it already feels as though nights are drawing in for the winter. It might as well be November. And as Easter slopes away so too does any hope that Persephone might fling any fruitfulness our way.

If you happen to be from Seville then none of this will be of immediately pressing concern. Sevillanos go to town for the duration of La Semana Santa – Holy Week. Seriously go to town. The pasos, (processions) of Seville’s Holy Week are the most pre-eminent event in the country’s religious calendar. Seville is Spain’s Vatican City, its Canterbury.

Religion – Spain’s Roman Catholicism: dark, brooding, muscular, yet always highly extravagant – hangs thick in the air in Seville, and nowhere more so than in Santa Cruz the city’s old medieval centre. The old town, or El Laberinto (‘the labyrinth’) as locals know it is exactly that: a warren of narrow streets and alleyways. It is like a hothouse. Temperatures soar from, well, Easter onwards and so the shade afforded by the many cool patios and plazas is a celestial blessing.

Seemingly every street, every public thoroughfare is named after some Saint. Even routine street furniture is suffused with the deathless whisper of The Resurrection, The Passion, The Virgin: The Phone Box of Christ The Holy Saviour, or The Pissoir of Our Most Blessed Redeemer. Pious wall murals are always demanding your attention.

It all rather makes the Camino del Santiago in the country’s cool, Atlantic north look like a village fête. Whereas back home you might organise a raffle for fixing the roof at the vicarage, here during Semana Santa you’ve got the Hermandades y Cofradías de Penitencia. These are the ‘Brotherhoods’, the masked penitents dressed in the Klu Klux Klan garb of head-to-toe robe and pointy mask processing through the streets. But it is really all a bit sinister, a bit Da Vinci Code. The whole thing has more than a whiff of The Inquisition and murky associations with Franco-era atrocities about it than I am entirely comfortable with. These Brotherhoods are said to undertake ‘Self-Regulated Religious Activities’, which, I would imagine, include manacling heretics to racks and removing their tongues.

But I do love the city and Santa Cruz in particular. It feels charmingly shabby. Its plazas of bright whites and sunlit gold are blithely carefree. It is characteristically unhurried in that way that Southern Europeans have made their own. And the scent of orange trees really does hang in the air. (There’s a great Irish Pub as well, but that’s another story).

Yet far from being a Catholic stronghold, Seville was of course a Muslim city and was part of Moorish Spain for several centuries until the reconquista of Ferndinand III. These influences continue to exist everywhere for all to see. You only have to look at the cathedral’s bell tower La Giralda to know that for all intents and purposes it is a minaret. The city is as much Muslim as it is Christian.

These morisco influences are nowhere more prevalent than in the very catholic – that’s ‘small c’ catholic, the true meaning of the word – cuisine and flavours that were developed after North African, Berber and Arab foodstuffs and cooking methods were brought to Iberia: cumin, saffron, almonds, lemons, dried fruits. Things we think of today as Spanish staples exist only as a result of the trade routes south and east. Paella and olive oil? It was the Moors who introduced rice and the cultivation of olive trees to Spain.

But we are not in Seville we are in Canterbury. Home of the Anglican Church this time and home to Café Mauresuqe, a Moorish themed Andalusian-tapas-Moroccan-tagine-kind-of restaurant and tapas bar. What’s more, it is in the heart of the city’s old medieval centre, with, as it happens, a pretty decent Irish Pub almost next door…

Café Mauresque is immediately a visually arresting and atmospheric place to be. From the morisco style ceramic tiling to the horseshoe arch motifs and even the lighting, it is not a million miles away from a Tangiers souk or a Córdoba back street. Without qualification, Café Mauresque is the loveliest looking restaurant in the city.

You will find a decent selection of Andalusian-Morrocan tapas dishes, cous cous, stews and many more Europeanised main course dishes such as Pork Belly in Fino Sherry and the perhaps unconvincing-sounding Steak with Manchego Butter. Moorish style Spanish tapas is certainly still infrequent enough for it to pique interest, which is in no small part aided and abetted by consistently dexterous cooking.

Fried potatoes with harissa yoghurt were hot and crisp. Hummus came with its characteristic garnishes: a generous slug of fruity olive oil and a spike of paprika. It was creamy, woody and avoided tasting like chewed cardboard, as it so often can. Brochettes of squid and chorizo, then lamb a la plancha were both decent and hearty; the former in particular. Plenty of smoky flavours here as well. 

For me the highlight of the tapas dishes were the Kefta, or Moroccan lamb meatballs. They were both plump and rich with cumin and served with sweet-sharp tomato sauce. I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice. Not only does it remain an integral aspect of the Moroccan kitchen but also the dining table where it is used as a plate-side condiment. It is such a warm, convivial aroma and always just pungent enough. Lamb, tomato, cumin in combination just does it for me.

More lamb: a tagine with dates and ginger and served in its namesake conical pot was excellent. Softly yielding, fatty meat slid with minimal effort from its shank bone tether. It was as filling and as reassuring as only a good pot of stew can be. Of all the meats lamb turns warm, sweet notes to its best advantage.

Dessert was Sticky Date Cake and was sticky, date-y, and erm, cake-y  accompanied with Spanish helado and washed down with sweet mint tea.

Canterbury is a kind of spiritual home for me. It is a place of childhood memories as well as being an adolescent stamping ground. Many halcyon days (and nights) were spent there as a student and then later on working in the city’s best bookshop. And it was during that time that Café Mauresque opened and became an instant hit.

Over a decade later it remains Canterbury’s best and most stylish restaurant. Moorish and moreish in equal measure.

Opinion: 8/10

Café Mauresque
8 Butchery Lane
Canterbury
Kent
CT1 2JR


Tel: (01227) 464300
Website: http://www.cafemauresque.com
Twitter @CafeMauresque