To Moro and To Morito and To Morito Hackney Road
The original Morito on Exmouth Market is my favourite restaurant in London, perhaps on Earth. There is not a major life event open to a 29 year-old, unmarried man that I have not celebrated there: birthdays, Valentine’s Days, anniversaries. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s so special about it: partly it’s the sheer immediacy of it all, crammed hugger-mugger at the bar an olive stone’s throw from the flat-top, like you’re in the bowels of the Boqueria rather than on a semi-pedestrianised street a few minutes’ walk from the Angel Wetherspoon’s. Maybe it’s the booze programme, which pioneered Sherry 2.0 (for the millionth time, “nothing like the stuff your maiden aunt kept in a dusty cupboard”), introduced London to the Rebujito (truly the king of summer cocktails), and is now elevating vermouth to new heights. And then there’s the food, from a menu that shifts with the seasons but somehow feels eternally familiar: there will always be the gilda (the best I’ve had outside Spain), the insanely addictive fried chickpeas, the aubergine with molasses, the grilled tetilla cheese with quince. The lamb chops and chicharrones de Cadiz will always come next, as sure as summer follows spring. And then the iconic Malaga raisin ice cream with Pedro Ximenez, the base creamier than you remembered it, the raisins sweeter, the sherry catching in the back of your throat and sending you off into the night with a little fire in your belly.
For years I couldn’t believe Sam and Sam Clark hadn’t tried to transplant this tiny, essential restaurant’s DNA and graft it somewhere larger, where more people could taste their food and (presumably) reciprocate with the financial reward they so clearly merited after years operating a place in a way that could almost be considered an act of charity. In an industry so famously shitty and on margins so perilously thin, I couldn’t believe this tiny shoebox could be anything other than a labour of love; I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t want to spread their wings, move somewhere larger. But it never happened.
Until, of course, it did. Morito Hackney Road represents a change of scene in more ways than one: it feels infinitely larger than its namesake, and ritzier too: ceilings are higher, decorative chintz more prevalent, there’s a whole corner dedicated to a properly appointed kitchen. Pride of place is still a bar, but here it’s a giant horseshoe marbled like Stichelton. Sitting at it we feel like we’re in a capital-R Restaurant, a feeling not dispelled by a wine list granted a whole side of A4, rather than a few lines of real estate on the tatty-adorable drinks pamphlet from Exmouth Market.
In moving east across London, MoriTwo has dragged the food along for the ride. Greek head chef Marianna Love has gone full Golden Dawn on the original’s menu, purging it of Spanish influences. The result is a menu that feels at once familiar (its length and its division into snacks, veg, fish and meat both ring bells) but which is littered with terms that make you wish you’d read your copy of Vefa’s Kitchen more assiduously, especially since it’s impossible to Google “Middle Eastern food tulum" without getting Yelp recommendations for beachside mezze joints in Mexico (turns out it’s a cheese).
We’re determined to try things that push us furthest from our Clerkenwell comfort zone, and end up with a mixed nosebag. Cod with young garlic and sherry sounds outrageously, seasonally promising on paper, but arrives looking and tasting nothing like a breath of spring air: the cod is overcooked, the garlic browned into French onion soup. A seafood rice is fine, with a robustly boozy and shrimpy stock; chargrilled quail with pomegranates and a pistachio sauce encourages an enjoyably paleolithic eating style, all gamey tang and heady orange zest. As any statistician worth his salt will tell you, though, stuff gets most interesting at the tails, and indeed our evening is bookended by three extraordinary dishes. The first thing we eat is labneh, thinner than some incarnations, topped with fresh broad beans and a chilli oil of almost Sichuan smokiness and heat. Ninety minutes later (service is troubled – more on that in a moment) things conclude with more labneh, this time punched up with gum mastic and rhubarb and offset by honeyed filo pastry, and a mango-yogurt ice cream of incredible intensity and focus. At moments like these – as at MoritOne – there is nowhere else you’d want to be.
Look – it’s not easy opening a restaurant, even if you’ve done it before. A lot of the bum notes – we are regularly presented with food we did not order; it takes multiple attempts to get hold of a few bits of bread; we end up cancelling some octopus when it takes over an hour to appear – can be attributed to teething problems which I am sure will disappear within a few weeks. A more relevant question is that, with all of these kinks ironed out, would I be willing to heat east, rather than south, for my Morito fix?
The answer is no, but that’s on me. Like loved ones, favourite restaurants pass the rubicon of rationality at some point. The food at Morito Hackney Road is mixed, but truthfully it’s sometimes mixed at Exmouth Market too: the lamb chops have come cold, the pa amb tomaquet underseasoned, the ice cream overpowered by an overzealous glug of sherry. I simply don’t care, so profound is the goodwill and so varied are the happy memories that have accumulated over the years. It took me going to another Morito to realise that the original Morito was never about the food, actually; it’s about what the food represents, the memories you’ll associate with the chickpeas and the aubergine and the perfect patatas bravas: birthdays, Valentine’s Days, anniversaries with someone who was once your girlfriend and will shortly be your wife. So I wish the Sams Clark all the luck in the world with their new baby, and I’m convinced it will become an equally beloved member of their miniature empire, frequented by the larger audience they deserve. It’s just that I won’t be there with them. I’ve found my Morito already.
Originally published by Civilian Global