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Review: El Cantara Combines Spanish and Moroccan Influences

BY Boon Koh
Published 11 November 2010

There are loads of Spanish tapas bars in London, and I will need more than both hands to count even just the good ones. There are also several excellent Moroccan restaurants in London, capitalising on the wave of Londoners who fell in love with Moroccan food on their exotic holidays to Marrakech.

El Cantara opened about a month ago in the heart of Soho, and promises to combine the best of Spanish and Moroccan cuisine, along with a shisha open-air terrace on the 2nd floor. El Cantara means bridge in Spanish and Arabic and it’s a fitting moniker for a new restaurant and bar.

I was lucky to be there as part of a party of bloggers invited by the restaurant. As I walked through the doors to tables at the back of the restaurant, I felt like I was reliving my holiday last year to Marrakech and Fez, with big long couches covered with fluffy pillows and shiny brass tables etched with what looked like very familiar Moroccan-style patterns.

The dinner got off to a good start with some really good, freshly baked bread topped with spicy harissa sauce. As a big fan of home-baked bread, its always nice to get hot fresh bread to start off a meal. These were so good that I could have been happy to skip the rest of the meal and just have a basket of them.

Starters were a selection of tapas, mixing Spanish and Moroccan tastes together. There was the usual hummus, which was fresh, but nothing extra special. There was also calamari and albondigas (beef meatballs in a rich tomato sauce), which were tasty, but expected in a Spanish restaurant. The highlight for me though was the pastila of chicken, which had a very light and crisp outer pastry, with a rich chicken filling. Granted, it wasn’t the traditional pigeon pastila, but chicken is a good, and understandably mainstream, substitute.

Mains were also a selection of dishes in the middle to share, with my favourite being the lamb tagine, which was extremely visually pleasing, with earthen colours of the dish it was served on contrasting with the bright colours of stewed prunes, almonds, and dates. The lamb was extremely tender, and the sweet honey and cinnamon sauce was the perfect complement.

However, the Valenciana seafood paella was mediocre, with the rice overcooked and soggy, and lacking in flavour. It was a big dish, probably enough for two to share and be full without ordering any other dishes. It’s redeeming point was that it was full of seafood, and it would have been probably the best value paella in town at £14.95 if the rice was right.

Dessert-wise, do give the ice cream a pass as it seems like an afterthought on the menu to pacify those challenged by exotic desserts. The date and chocolate pudding, trying to give a classic English dessert a Moroccan spin, was unsuccessful as well and just tasted like a very thick and stodgy chocolate cake, neither rich nor light. The creme catalana, a “Spanish-style vanilla custard”, looked and tasted like a normal creme brulee, and was actually extremely good.

Overall, El Cantara serves some pretty good food, although some dishes were hit and miss. Prices were quite standard for Soho, with tapas starters around the £5 mark, and mains around £14. If you like shisha, the bonus is definitely the roof terrace shisha bar.

El Cantara Restaurant
Cuisine: Spanish and Moroccan
Price: Around £5 for starters, £15 for mains, £5 for desserts
Address: 45 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4SD
Booking tel: 020 7734 6868
Website: www.elcantara.co.uk