So, just how far south do you have to go before you can sense the North African influence of Morocco? As far as Ventnor?
For four days only, this is apparently the case. Chef Mourad Sahnoune has opened his first ever pop-up restaurant, Chez Mourad, in Ocean Blue Quay, Ventnor, to coincide with the Minghella Film Festival. Matt and Cat received invitations from three different people to give it a spin, so how could they resist? As a part of a large party of interested Moroccan-foodseekers they rolled up on Ventnor esplanade on the opening night of the pop-up, ready to see what Mourad could offer.
The evening started promisingly. For once Matt and Cat arrived in a timely way and were welcomed by chef Mourad himself, who shook the duo warmly by the hands as he introduced himself. As none of their party had arrived yet Matt and Cat perched at the bar and nibbled on olives. Matt, feeling in a celebratory mood daringly ordered a bottle of wine, although he rather spoilt this extravagant-seeming flourish by asking Mourad to recommend the cheapest bottle! He ended up being encouraged to imbibe a Moroccan wine called ‘Les Trois Domaines’ Guerrouane rouge. Matt, who admits to being a wine ignoramus thought it fruity, if a bit rough. Cat stuck to apple juice.
Whilst nibbling and sipping, M&C checked out their surroundings. In their previous visits to this spacious haven-side venue they had been impressed by its minimalist interior. This was largely unchanged. A few scented candles and some leather cushions gave a very vaguely Moorish tinge to the venue, but as it’s only open for four days, one can hardly expect more.
As the place filled up, Matt and Cat were introduced to their dining partners. A comedian, a professional gambler, a marketeer, a graphic designer, a virtual ranger and an octogenarian were amongst the table of twelve. The luminaries of Ventnor were out in force, and there was a real buzz about the place. Matt and Cat were handed their menus, intrigued by the promise of a ‘unique food experience through Mediterranean cuisine’.
£25 per head for three courses, plus drinks
After placing their orders, the party picked at bowls of nuts, chickpeas and olives. These nibbles actually appeared on the menu as the rather overstated ‘amuse-bouche’. Not quite the cauliflower velouté with a thyme foam that they had supped on at the nearby Royal Hotel, which really did serve as an excitement of taste buds. Maybe, in true amuse-bouche style, these snacks offered a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.
Taking time to chat to their dining partners Matt and Cat were not paying much attention to the processes of the restaurant. When the starters arrived they realised that there had been quite a wait. It was a busy night and, according to Mourand’s web site, the first night of his first ever pop-up restaurant so they chose to be a bit forgiving and settled down to their first courses.
Cat had a selection of briouats: cheese with potato and fresh mint; or mushroom with spinach and olives. This constellation of tiny fried pastries was garnished with a sprig of mint, an almost ubiquitous herb in the preparation and decoration of Mourad’s dishes. Cat liked the starter; the spinach and mushroom briouat was gently flavoured, slightly minty and very nice.
Matt’s starter caused the most sensation around the table. M&C’s fellow diners were getting hungry and his duo of zaalouk: green pepper and aubergine salad with hummus was served with warmed pitta – quite a plateful for a starter. Matt declared the aubergine bitter, but in a good way.
There was much amiable chatter between the diners as the Moroccan red wine flowed freely. One dining companion, the patron of a local inn, stuck loyally to Sicilian red, explaining knowledgeably how Moroccan grapes were inferior to Italian. The wine did a good job of keeping the diners occupied as there was little sign of the previous course being cleared away. It seemed the restaurant could have benefited from more waiting staff, and it was clear that Mourad’s front-of-house duties extended beyond glad-handing his customers; he took orders, delivered food and – eventually – cleared the tables.
The mains finally arrived although sadly not all together. Cat, anxious to maintain the warmth of her Godshill Farm chicken which was presented under a heat-retaining tagine roof, tucked in. In the thick and mildly-spiced stew nestled a couple of bits of tender chicken, and some bobbing olives. There was also a chunk of preserved lemon which gave the dish an excellent sour tang. Overall it was a bit too salty for Cat’s liking but she tempered this with some of Matt’s cinnamon-spiced veg and a spoon of the very fine cous-cous.
As well as having the lion’s share with his starter, Matt had lucked in with his main course – Godshill Farm lamb méchoui. A little bowl arrived, with a massive chunk of moist, tasty, slow-cooked lamb, garnished with a few dried fruits and some sweet gravy. Alongside was a decent-sized bowl of couscous, and a second bowl with what appeared to be vegetables floating in some sort of soup. A plentiful meal, so much so that Matt passed his couscous and veg around to other diners who dug in. The tiny bowl with the tasty hunk of lamb proved itself to be a woefully inadequate vessel, and once the couscous and vegetables had been added, Matt might have preferred a plate – but no matter, it was not too onerous a task to make some room.
Once the main course was finished, the wine glasses were again charged for the next round of gossip. And once more an extended pause lengthened into querulous comments from the diners, as they waited in vain for their plates to be cleared. When this finally occurred, the patron himself came and took orders for dessert – even though by then the party had been seated for over three hours, and some were minded to go.
Sweets made their way from the kitchen in dribs and drabs. Some arrived before the cutlery, prompting the party – by now fearing that any sight of the staff might be their last – to go to nearby empty tables and raid them of tableware. Matt found himself the last on the table to be served, but – possibly as a consolation – he at least was given two spoons with which to occupy himself. With the stiff upper lip that characterises any Englishman in a crisis, he delighted his fellow diners by using the two spoons to rap out popular melodies whilst they ate.
Time moved on and other diners had finished their desserts. Eventually the row of the spoons must have attracted the attention of Mourad, who came over and whispered sepulchrally into Matt’s ear that his choice – the honeycombed crepes – was no longer available. Matt, half-crazed by the Moroccan wine, the spoons and the late hour, stabbed wildly at the menu and ended up with fresh orange salad with blossom water, cinnamon and mango sorbet, which was in fact the same dish that Cat had recently finished. Cat thought that the crepes had been a better option. When the replacement dish arrived, Matt saw why. Though fresh and tasty, the dessert could at best be described as unsophisticated in presentation. The oranges were roughly chopped, and the rest of the dish – including more torn mint leaves and cinnamon – seemingly flung into the bowl regardless. Cat had eaten her dessert with pleasure, and Matt did the same, but both agreed that this enjoyable and novel combination of tastes was a missed opportunity for a good-looking dish.
Matt and Cat love pop-up restaurants. It’s really exciting to see chefs trying out the Island as a venue – and it would be great if this was to become a trend. But Chez Mourand was a flawed gem. A gem, certainly, for bringing an interesting concept to Ventnor and creating a real buzz. To be sure, Ocean Blue Quay is the must-do venue of the moment for the fashion-conscious diner. But flawed, sadly, by an underambitous menu and inadequate service. Even allowing for the inevitable rough edges of any pop-up, the most gracious host and sophisticated location cannot fully compensate for a wait of an hour between courses. It’s more than possible that the subsequent nights of this venture will run more smoothly. What’s more, there is also a lunchtime menu, so there’s no excuse not to come and give the place a try if that is what you fancy. But if you visit, make sure you allow plenty of time to do it.
Chez Mourad is serving lunch and dinner from 10th – 13th March 2011 only, at Ocean Blue Quay, Ventnor.