More often than I thought I would, I reflect on a long weekend in Marrakech and the food we ate when there. It wasn’t supposed to be a gastro-trip, but somehow I managed to move the focus of each day towards locating the best eats.
Unsurprisingly, the most memorable moments and mouthfuls weren’t found in the various joyless, tourist tagines that we ate. Rather, it’s the bits and pieces from the stalls on the side streets and in the central square that continue to loom large in the taste bank.
A pimped wheelbarrow selling every chewable thing off a boiled lamb carcass provided easily the best plateful. Not far off was a superb shallow bowl of spicy sausages, served from a smoking grill set in the middle of a mass of people (few tourists at this stand) and a wall of chatter and shouts. The sausages were fatty – both full of and doused in oils and juices – and came simply served with a hot sauce and as much freshly cooked bread as you wanted to mop up all the flavours. This was sensory eating at its best, and cost just a few pennies.
I remembered those wieners most recently when at Berber & Q, an ‘East London grill house taking inspiration from the Middle East and North Africa’. It turns out the Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, which links those Moroccan sausages nicely to this restaurant’s pleasingly spiced, in-house made merguez.
Berber & Q is tucked under a railway arch just next to the Regent’s Canal. The decor pairs the inevitable stripped back industrial look, with hints of their chosen geographic and cultural theme – decorative tiles and lampshades assist the vibe.
Less authentic to the cuisine is a soundtrack of pumping house music, which blasted at near uncomfortable levels throughout the night. I don’t often dwell on music and noise levels, but thumping din was felt through every bite and caused each part of our conversation to be shouted. Those market stalls mentioned above are loud, but their cacophony can escape into the night sky. Berber & Q’s beats just reverberate and escalate, and may even be so loud as to dull the tastebuds. The chefs might be loving the rave from behind the grill, but the genre and volume of music don’t make sense as an eater. I genuiunely would’ve preferred to move our table to the loos (reasonably spacious, better music).
Their menu is relatively short, but still difficult to order from – in the sense that it’d be easiest to say “I’ll have one of each”.
You can start with finger food from the ‘bits & dips’ section, including saffron roasted pistachios and house made hummus (apparently pretty good). But we wanted to head straight to the mains so took our pick from the six meat options, which include pulled lamb, date syrup glazed smoked beef rib, saffron and lemon marinated chicken thighs and the aforementioned sausages. There are various house pickles to cut through the smoke and rich meat, and then a mighty tempting set of largely vegetarian mezze dishes to bolster the feast. We didn’t try confit heritage tomatoes with kisir and green labneh; grilled leeks, charred spring onion aioli and muhammara; nor grilled asparagus with braised mustard seeds and toum (garlic sauce), but kudos to the menu writer because they all sound very good.
Instead, with our meat selection came half a blackened cauliflower, topped with tahini, herbs and pomegranate seeds (mega); blackened, smoky aubergine with a mellow tomato and garlic yoghurt dressing (yep yep); and a bowl of smoked beans, which were tangled with thick strings of soft braised lamb neck and topped with crisp onions (the only way I’ll be eating baked beans from now on). Super stuff.
We were told to order a meat option each and duly did. Service was sharp (in speed, friendly in nature) and our selection arrived piled on pitta and surrounded by chopped fresh herbs, pots of cumin salt and sauces, and the mixed pickles we’d ordered.
Except ‘piled’ is probably the wrong word. Quantity wise, the three things we’d chosen (chicken thighs, a strip of smoked and charred pork belly and the merguez sausages) wouldn’t compare well with a mixed grill from one of the many ocakbasi restaurants a mile or so further up the Kingsland Road.
To be fair, the generosity of traditional Turkish grills are hard to match when you’re sourcing quality meats, and I think the standards of Berber & Q’s suppliers were just about evident in the chicken and pork options: the thighs were savoury, flavourful and tender, the strip of belly subtly smoked, meaty and still with plenty of bite, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, and not least because of the memories they’d stirred, we were less keen on the merguez. Quite apart from the fact four little chipolata sized fellas felt like a poor return on £16, they either needed more fat in the mix or less time on the flames to match the juiciness of the version in Djema el-Fna, or indeed any of the best snags. Spice levels were decent, mind.
Too long was spent thinking about whether our tray of meat merited the £44 (plus service) that it cost. On its own possibly not. But in the round-up, an ultimately tasty and filling dinner, including a bottle and bit of an enjoyable red, came to £35 per head, which is good.
Berber & Q isn’t the next step in grilled meats I’d half a hope it would be. But the mezze dishes are excellent and you’ll eat a decent, flavourful meal should you head here. Just bring your ear-plugs and don’t expect a conversation.
Berber & Q in 3 words
Mezze. Grill. Loud.
£35-40 per person should do it.
berberandq.com – Arch 338, Acton Mews, E8 4EA – No reservations (they’ll call you back)