Posted on Tuesday, 23rd November 2010
El Cantara is a newly opened Spanish and Moroccan restaurant on Frith Street. Much care was taken in decorating the restaurant. Moroccan interior designer Nadine Rovass spent months trawling through the markets of Southern Spain and Morocco searching for unique pieces that would bring the Spanish and Moroccan theme together. To this effect, you will see the nicest of finishings in the restaurant including hand-painted floor and wall tiles, beautifully hand-stitched cushions and pillows, Moroccan lanterns and hand-engraved brass tables. The bathroom in the basement is special too, and houses the finest organic Moroccan hand soap. There’s also a terrace on the first floor with lounge seats where you can sit comfortably, smoke shisha and simply chill. On Fridays and Saturdays, there are also belly and Flamenco dancers available for your entertainment pleasure.
I went to a bloggers dinner at El Cantara a couple of weeks ago as a guest of the restaurant. The menu is divided roughly into tapas to share, tangines, seafood dishes, cous cous, paellas and grills. We started with a number of tapas dishes, including gambas al ajillo (£5.45) which was crunchy and firm, although they could have done with a touch more garlic.
Another tapas dish of calamares fritos (£4.75) was nicely seasoned. The squid was tender and the batter was crispy. Pastilla of chicken (£4.95), a dish of savoury chicken baked in puff pastry with cinnamon and almonds was a good rendition of the Moroccan classic which is typically served with pigeon. The pastry was light and flaky, the chicken was tasty and overall the dish was pleasant and not too sweet. Albondigas (£5.25), beef meatballs in a rich tomato and cumin sauce with garden peas, was meaty and rustic.
Courgette fritos (£4.45), shredded courgette and goats cheese fritters served with rosemary yoghurt, were morish. The combination of the courgettes and the cheese worked well together, as did the added zinginess of the yoghurt. Spinach and feta cheese pasties (£4.75) were tasty. The tapas proved a promising start to the meal.
Onto the mains, and we went for the Valenciana paella (£14.95) with prawns, mussels, squid and chicken. This dish may be named after a Spanish classic, but it was truly terrible. The seafood wasn’t bad, but the rice was soggy and mushy. Furthermore, it did not have any of the flavour that you would have expected had it been cooked with a good stock. I couldn’t detect any saffron either. The portion size was generous but this was the only positive I could draw from the dish.
I didn’t enjoy the mixed grill either (£14.45). The chicken was very dry and the lamb was too peppery. The rice also tasted odd as if there was some soap suds in it. There’s no doubt Edgware Road is the better bet if you are in search of a mixed grill.
The only saving grace among the mains was the lamb tagine (£13.45) which was lovely. The lamb was incredibly tender and succulent, and the combination of honey, cinnamon, prunes, rosewater and almonds produced a well balanced and flavoursome dish.
From the desserts (all priced at £4.95), I enjoyed the Crema Catalana, a traditional Spanish-style vanilla custard topped with caramelised custard which tasted like a good crème brulee. But the presentation was rather silly.
A date and chocolate pudding, a dessert of crushed dates with melted chocolate served with pistachio ice cream, was very dense but without any of the chocolate-y richness. It was therefore not particularly appetising. This was also another silly looking plate. The two pieces I tried from the selection of baklavas were not crispy and tasted stale. Ice creams were passable.
The starters were very good but I wasn’t much impressed with the rest. I get the sense the restaurant stretches itself too far by trying to serve both Spanish and Moroccan food and in doing so, does neither particularly well. I can’t recommend El Cantara for a meal even if it is nicely decorated and the service is decent. However the terrace area looked great, so the best bet may be to nibble on some tapas whilst enjoying a shisha or two.