That blameless white pillowy cheese mizithra served with the wild greens called horta; dakos (barley rusks) gently knuckling under their sopping topping; slices of bottarga gleaming like amber; rabbit haunted with cinnamon; mealy fava with grilled octopus; floppy chips acting as garnish; mastic from Chios lending its resinous notes and enhanced whiteness to dessert — for someone who loves Greece (e g, me) this Cretan bias to the menu at Morita in Hackney is as seductive and stirring as a Psarantonis melody.
The chef, who has come from Sam and Samantha Clark’s Moro, is Marianna Leivaditaki, whose family owns a restaurant in Crete. Along with Samantha she is running the open kitchen in a cacophonous space that can only be described as Hackneyed. Cement floor and ceiling, top-to-toe glass frontage, neon striplighting, a central marble bar looking arrestingly like petrified gorgonzola: Moro is always loud but here noise skids and clangs. It is like eating in a carwash. Where the corner office might be are some wooden shelves with plants and ephemera but everywhere else is harsh.
Happily bookings are taken but queues form anyway. Moro and the first Morito, both in Exmouth Market, have form. Dishes are intended for sharing. The heavily tattooed waiter — he is a walking bottle of ink — makes that doleful announcement to us “guys” that dishes will come as and when they are ready.
On the first visit some structure is imposed but on the second occasion a first course of cod with spring garlic — turbot on the plancha sadly having run out — gets the meal off to an odd start when pan con tomate, here beautifully daintily constructed, can and should do that. A spiced chopped salad with yogurt and chilli butter sold as being perfect with the chargrilled lamb chops (£4.50 per chop) later on looks around in vain for its meaty mates.
Whilst it is impressive that such an apparently small kitchen can service a big bustling room, surely it would be as easy to follow the lineaments of a conventional meal as not. And prices dictate a natural order. At least the desserts come last. Much of the food is so beguiling and dynamic that objections evaporate and the stars above are for cooking not comfort, but there is something gratingly refractory about not enhancing the impact.
I can safely say that I have never had aubergines so delicately fried in batter as the strips that come with fresh feta and date molasses. They almost take wing. Another fruity vegetable assembly is bitter green leaves with dried figs and sesame brittle, the last a constituent part that softens and bends as the eating goes on. Whether bought in or homemade — the latter I suspect — it is a stroke of genius.
I’ve never had aubergines so delicately fried as the battered strips that come with feta and date molasses
Oloroso sherry and sweet stewed onions lend a faintly sumptuous quality to matter-of-fact cod and the garlic a bit of naughtiness but it stays an odd way to be obliged to start a meal, especially when the remains of the powerful negroni — a particularly effective one — would have worked much better with, say, bottarga on its lightly toasted bread.
Clams are opened in fino sherry and served with grass-green asparagus cut vertically into supple strips. A trip into the more familiar Moro territory of Morocco is kid mechoui (spit-roasted) served here with preserved lemon and harissa as is delicious and correct. It is on this soft mound of meat that chips stretch out like bleary sunbathers.
Sauces that come with some of the dishes such as the peppery almond and orange mojo with asparagus and the pistachio purée let down by juices that surround chargrilled quail with pomegranate, deserve a more bounteous serving of bread than the five tiny seeded slices served for £2.50. When was it that restaurants started to get so precious and pricey with bread? It used to be symbolic of hospitality. And “free”.
Alfonso mangoes are in season, which is a cause for rejoicing, and mango is served criss-crossed and bent back on itself in the traditional manner for a reasonable £4. Sensibly exploiting the golden fruit further is mango and yogurt ice cream topped with pistachios. Both these desserts — and quite a few of the other dishes — have pomegranate seeds scattered over them. “I felt like bloody Persephone by the end of the evening,” emailed one of my chums afterwards. They are an easy, colourful but also rather spiteful little gesture and we will know who to blame if the weather takes a turn for the worse this summer.
Wines on tap, a Verdejo white and Tempranillo red, kick off an interesting Spanish list at £4 a glass, where all bottles are served by the glass and sometimes 500ml carafe. There is a wide range of sherries and vermouths to dally with and hot drinks thoughtfully include cortado and Cretan mountain tea. Now if they could just turn the dial down on the din…
195 Hackney Road, E2 (020 7613 0754, morito.co.uk). Currently open for lunch, Tues-Sun noon-2.45pm, and dinner, daily 6pm-10.45pm (9pm Sun). A meal for two with wine, about £86 including 12.5 per cent service.
- Fay Maschler, The Evening Standard