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Moroccan Nights In Islington - Michael Hepworth gets the sand between his toes

The number of restaurants, bistros and bars on Upper Street in Islington is staggering - particularly if you are visiting for the first time or even after a few years absence. Marsdens sounds quintessentially English, and it has had several formats over the years but the current chef-patron Mohammed Faraji is pushing his Moroccan food to the locals and doing a pretty good job of it by all accounts.

I visited the restaurant on a Tuesday night and it was about half full and Mohammed was doubling as chef and waiter host and continually visited every table. This did cause some lengthy delays between courses, unfortunately. His enthusiasm however has obviously rubbed off in his cooking so that in spite of their being fewer Moroccan dishes on the menu they are the more popular items. He sells about two thirds Moroccan food - the other dishes are an assortment of what can be loosely termed European.

Momo, Moro, Tajine and some of the other trendy North African style eateries in London have made quite an impact on the London dining scene with somewhat reviews about their authenticity, but Marsdens seemed pretty genuine and probably offers rather better value. The atmosphere is relaxed enough in a long room with dark blue carpets with bright yellow-mustard walls and silk lanterns.

There are four starters plus a special on both menus and my two companions and I decided to go for the Moroccan dishes. One friend was trying North African food for the first time. His great passion is authentic Moslem style Indian food that can be found on the streets of Southall and Ilford, so his opinion was interesting if not precisely informed.

I began with the baked Fresh sardines marinated in chermoula and stuffed with roasted pine nuts. They were two of the biggest sardines I have ever had (with very few bones), in a very oily coriander and cumin based sauce and priced at £4.95. My rookie companion selected the Fish Pastilla, a spicy fish pie wrapped in a crunchy filo shell (£5.75). He seemed very satisfied as did my other friend who went for the special of Crab Rosti and salad also at £4.95. We also tried a starter from the European menu of Goats' brie cheese coated with a mixture of herbs, garlic, sesame seeds and breadcrumbs with a delicious chutney of pears, onions & port (£4.95). The very pronounced taste of cheese was well complemented by the chutney, but not a good choice if you only like cheese on a limited basis. The poached egg on brioche toast with smoked salmon and topped with hollandaise sauce at £5.50 was far more interesting. This local favourite is the chef's variant on the more traditional style of eggs Benedict.

The choice of main courses was limited with only five items, but the Lamb and Vegetable Couscous (£12.50) had good pieces of tender young lamb in just enough juice. My friend's Lamb Tagine with apricot, prunes and roasted sesame seed (£12.50) also came with couscous. He thought the flavours were a little overpowering, but seemed to be able to plough through it all the same. There were no complaints about the Baby Chicken stuffed with rice and nuts (£10.95), served with aromatic vegetables and garnished with preserved lemon and green olives. There is more of a choice on the European menu with duck, beef, salmon, risotto, prawns and sea bass.

A word at this stage about the Moroccan wine Amazir AOG Beni M'Tir 1996 priced at £11.95 a bottle. It's quite ripe with a flavour of Autumn bonfires, very complex and surprisingly good. The dessert of the day at £4.50 was a French Hazelnut cream pie, very rubbery and similar to Kulfi. Plenty of ice-cream and Moroccan puddings are available however, along with cheeses, liqueurs and coffee selections to round out an interesting eating experience.

Michael Hepworth May 1999

Marsden's - 189 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 1RQ
Tel-020 7226-2305 Fax-020 7226-2155
Nearest tube - Highbury
Lunch: 12noon - 3pm (closed Saturday) - £9.95 set menu
Dinner: 6pm - 11.30pm (closed Monday)
Seating: 70
Price: Average £25.00 per person including house wine.

Michael Hepworth April 1999



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