Sarah Cotterill sits down for a Moorish takeaway on the A61

ON the approach to the Scott Hall Road roundabout, maroon Fez hats with little black tassels bob about in El Bahja’s window. Outside, brand-new timber decking stretches from the front door and the blue neon sign in ornate Arabic typography precedes the epithet 'Moroccan Cuisine' above a line of dishes: couscous, charcoal grill, pizzas, burgers and vegan options. So dedicated are El Bahja to the latter that there’s a whole separate green-trimmed menu, detailing 'Vegan Donner Gyros', 'Vegan Royal Couscous' and, best of all, 'Saucy Meat Free Balls'.

Have you ever tried carrying a tagine in a foil tray? A mass of pilau rice buckles and caves from the counter to our seats

Behind the counter, huge marinating tubs: stuff on skewers, curled-up wheels of merguez sausage and spongey squares of tofu. A solo diner picks at a paper plate in front of a row of upturned tables. 

The playlist is an eclectic mix of Miley Cyrus and ELO. On one half of the restaurant, two staff members prep Deliveroo orders in turquoise paper bags. On the other, a brick wall displays a bounty of North African treasure: hand-painted dishes, grand embellished mirrors, teapots and lanterns. A shelf is stacked with colourful tagines and trinkets for sale. The floor is beautiful; a muted kaleidoscope mosaic; so beautiful, in fact, that it’s the backdrop for El Bahja’s food promo shots on Facebook.

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Exterior
Shiny and new on the approach

We sit awkwardly for a while before venturing up to the till for a takeaway menu. Sadly they’re out of iced mint tea, so I ask for some tap water and the chef shrugs towards a plastic jug near the door. There’s a lot of choice – a whole concertina of starters: baba ghanouj, garlic bread, mahjeb flatbread stuffed with spiced tomatoes, onion and spices. Got company? El Bahja To Share is a terrifying concoction of French fries topped with chicken shawarma, pepperoni, spicy meatballs, caramelised onions, jalapenos, melted mozzarella cheese, spicy sauce, barbecue sauce and garlic mayo.

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Falafel Platter
Falafel platter could try harder

Panicked and hungry, we order the falafel platter (£8.45) at the top of the page. Six breaded golf balls roll around in the corner of a foil tray, beside dollops of houmous and tsatziki. The 'Moroccan salad' turns out to be shredded iceberg, cucumber triangles, mint and raw red onion, elevated by good-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. The tabbouleh too is a little uninventive. I’m also fairly sure it was couscous and not bulgur wheat, with a token scattering of green, instead of the traditional meadow of fresh parsley. The hummus is thick, sprinkled with a tiny pinch of sumac, and the tsatziki cooling against a lightly flavoured falafel, somewhat masked by the aromas of the deep fat fryer.  

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Spicy Potatoes
Not-so spicy spicy potatoes

There’s something strangely comforting about the crack of the pitta soldiers, but I wouldn’t call the spicy potatoes spicy (£3.95). Their mild red sauce, almost reminiscent of patatas bravas, has turned the cubes slightly soggy.

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Falafel Wrap
...and that's a wrap, guys

A second lot of policemen enter in full high-vis tactical vests. The criminals of north Leeds pause as they order baton-sized 12-inch combo wraps (£4.45). We can see the appeal. The flatbread is soft and super pliable, with smoky blisters from the plancha sizzling away behind us. Freshly grilled chunks of halloumi melt into our Mediterranean veggie tagine (£8.95). Have you ever tried carrying a tagine in a foil tray? A mass of pilau rice buckles and caves from the counter to our seats, perhaps the reason why El Bahja avoid table service. Swamped, quarters of courgette and carrot have a silky bite, and soon our lips turn orange with saffron.

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Veggie Tagine
Would you like some veggie tagine with that cheese?

Despite the giant plates of red velvet and Biscoff cake, we pick-up a Tupperware box of baklawa (£3.45), syrupy and fragrant, which doesn’t last the journey home. On the way out, the staff, indifferent to our somewhat curious presence, reveal the actual restaurant bit isn’t open yet (proper table service officially began in February, after our visit). Which explains the foil trays, the upturned tables, the takeaway menu… the apathy.

2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Baklawa
Baklawa perfect for sticky fingers

If I was in the Potternewton area, I’d return for a decent value feast, maybe even served in some ethnic homeware, but perhaps, for now, El Bahja have bitten off a little more than they can chew.

El Bahja, 24 Potternewton Lane, Chapel Allerton, LS7 2EG  

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2020 02 07 Leeds El Bahja Receipt

The scores:

All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.

  • Food 5/10

    Falafel platter 6, spicy potatoes 3, falafel wrap 5, Mediterranean veggie tagine 5, baklawa 6.

  • Service 2/5

    Almost non-existent but might be better now they've apparently introduced table service

  • Atmosphere 2/5

    A very mixed hat but great floor