Friday, 17 December 2010

CousCous Darna & Celebrating Liberation

Two days ago was a monumental day. It was one I had been looking forward to for quite a while as it marked the end of the university term and the beginning of the Christmas holidays. After twelve weeks, over 13,000 words, plus a photography project and workbook, the feeling of liberation was immense. One of the biggest challenges this term was the self motivation and organisation: rather than a manic last-minute dash, the workload required consistent endurance over the weeks, which in turn necessitated some tough self-discipline. At the end of it, then, there was no reason not to celebrate, so my friend Fred and I decided to go for a meal somewhere in London, preferably more central than we were currently located.

The plan for the evening was to be as relaxed and disorganised as possible; we'd get off a random tube station and amble aimlessly in any direction until we found a restaurant that tickled our fancy, then we would eat and spend as much time there as we liked. This approach, an antidote to the constraints that the past weeks had subjected us to, led us eventually to Couscous Darna, a Moroccan restaurant in South Kensington. I hadn't eaten at a Moroccan before and the restaurant looked inviting. The menu was on the pricey side, but after months of tight budgeting it seemed like a good (and further liberating) idea to throw caution to the wind.

The interior was fantastic. The Moroccan styling of the decoration was utterly convincing; from the terracotta walls to the intricately patterned crockery, right through to the Moroccan music and faint smell of incenses. The lighting was dim, but not too much so (something that can be irritating – I like to be able to see my food, and put my fork in my mouth rather than my eye) and the atmosphere was pleasantly convivial.

The staff were friendly too, especially the manager, a Moroccan from Fès, who was exceedingly polite and welcoming. After half an hour, our main courses arrived. Fred had ordered a pan fried 'Duck Magret', which was presented beautifully. More importantly, he was ecstatic about the flavour, so I think we can safely assume that it tasted as good, if not better, than it looked. I had ordered the 'Tagine Lahem Bal Barkouk', a 'traditional saddle of lamb with caramelised prunes, rosted almonds, cinnamon Seasame seeds, egg, and saffron' cooked in terracotta clay. It sounded good on paper, and happily it was good to eat too. The lamb was wonderfully soft and the sauce was subtly spiced, but for me the caramelised prunes were the star of the show. That said, I wasn't as enthusiastic about it as Fred was about his duck.

I decided to go all out and have a dessert too, for which I chose the 'Baked Fig Tartlette', a shortcrust pastry with 'almond and pistachio cream and roasted figs served with a cinnamon ice cream'. When it came it was nice – again subtly flavoured – but I have to say, disappointingly small.

Overall the food was good, the staff were friendly and the atmosphere was spot on – it is definitely worth a look, even if simply lap up the atmosphere. I couldn't help feeling a little ripped-off though. The main course was expensive enough, then the dessert was a further six pounds for a tiny tart and an even smaller dollop of ice cream. But worse was the fact that the bread rolls we were offered as a starter came with an Aubergine Zaalouk. It tasted fine, but I do not remember asking for it, and when it came to the bill we were charged an astonishing £6.95 for the small bowl of compote, plus an extra pound for the rolls. I felt a little robbed, to be perfectly honest.

The classic Cinnabon. Well worth it.

But we were not there to save money; we were there to enjoy the release from stress, deadlines and hardcore budgeting, and to embrace the free spirit of indulgence (just for once). With that in mind, we headed to Piccadilly Circus, where I simply couldn't resist a second dessert in the form of a classic Cinnabon bun. If you haven't tried one, just try to imagine a classic Danish pastry, but on steroids. Now there is a good way to spend (a further) £3.50. Well, come on, you've got to treat yourself every once in a while, right?

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