Thursday, November 11, 2010
In anticipation of all of my globetrotting at the World Travel Market this week, I worked up an appetite for cuisine from around the world. Conveniently, I received an invitation to have dinner with a group of London bloggers at El Cantara, a new Spanish-Moroccan restaurant in Soho.
El Cantara shares Frith Street with a number of London institutions—the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and the Michelin-starred Arbutus restaurant to name just two—and I looked forward to seeing whether it merited its place among these Soho hotspots.
As soon as I walked into the restaurant, I knew that El Cantara had won me over with its decor. Dark oranges and reds were offset by sleek tables set below authentic metal lanterns in an Andalusia-meets-Marrakech display of style. The upstairs even offered a canopied outdoor sheesha lounge with low tables and overstuffed pillows.
After my awe subsided, I sat down with my fellow diners over a glass of juicy sangria. Then the feast began. First came an abundance of starters, my favorite of which was the amazing fluffy olive bread. In addition to the bread, the table was packed with hummus, marinated green and black olives, a delicious chicken pastilla, fried calamari, huge beef meatballs in a rich tomato and cumin sauce, and spinach-and-feta filo pastries.
After the mezze plates had been cleared, the main courses arrived. Around went a succulent lamb tagine, a huge platter of Paella Valenciana, a vegetarian tagine, and a plate of lamb and chicken skewers. The crowd favorite was the lamb tagine, not least because the meat was so tender.
After such a feast we had no room left in our regular stomachs, so we switched over to our dessert stomachs. Out from the kitchen came a plate of baklava, bowls of pistachio, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream, an amazing crema catalana topped with caramelized sugar, and chocolate pudding with dates.
There was no live entertainment that evening, but on some nights El Cantara has a belly dancer to perform for guests. It was just as well, though, because we may have never left if we had something to entertain us after we were too full to eat more.
As we walked out of El Cantara restaurant and past Ronnie Scott’s and Arbutus, I couldn’t help but wonder if the new restaurant on the street would join the likes of its neighbors as a London institution. Time will be the judge of that, but for now, the food, entertainment, and sheesha lounge will keep people coming back.