Sarah Cotterill heads down Burley Road for a mixed mezze of surprises
Leeds. A city of diverse identities. A clash of cultures you might say. A reality exemplified opposite the ITV studios on Burley Road. Like my favourite portmanteau - Brexit, MoroccOriental throws up all kinds of questions.
Is it North African, is it Asian, is it Lebanese? You can order pizza, garlic bread and chicken nuggets on the website, which also advertises authentic Italian dishes for delivery.
As the screaming subsides, there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere
Inside, more confusion. The décor seems half inspired by Moorish architecture, and half Essex adult entertainment venue. An embroidered carpet billows from the ceiling, trimmed with a fine black tassel and matching seat covers.
Antique filigree lanterns cast leaf-shaped shadows across the room, shelves of silver teapots with long curling spouts perch above a diamanté studded leather bar. Blue neon strip lights frame a statue of a wooden fisherman wrapped in a modest loincloth. Behind the twinkling bead curtain, a black and red glittery bathroom awaits in all its garish glory. It’s Arabian nights meets S&M.
It’s also 7pm on a Saturday - and empty. But as we find a seat at a wobbly pair of tables by the window, a large family arrive, a gaggle of children screaming and stamping in onesies. We sympathise, after five hours of drinking at Leeds International Beer Festival, we too characterize another popular portmanteau - hangry.
Luckily, the menu is as extensive as it is unified. An A5 book of literally 69 entries, laminated. The mains include tagine, bourek, couscous, oriental burgers, shawarma and grills. You can have homemade mashed potato as a side. MoroccOriental isn’t licenced, probably a good thing for us, but they’ve run out fruit for the freshly squeezed juices, and fresh mint for the tea.
Naturally, we order a sesame and pistachio and a peanut butter and Nutella milkshake (both £3.50), which arrive frothy and thick with wide plastic straws. Slurped alongside our mix mezze for two (£6.99), they go together like Harry and Meghan, one totally ruining the other's life.
A pile of briny olives make up the centre point of the flower-shaped mezze platter, which fans out with dishes of smoky aubergine, cumin flecked humous, and checkchouka – a roasted pepper sauce with fresh tomato and garlic. A green, herb heavy tabouleh and slivers of pickled gherkins cut through the richness of the dips. All served with creased folds of limp flatbread, it’s a mild, unassuming start.
The family beside us are asked to move tables for the second time, now into the back room, which, partitioned with latticed screens, offers "majlis" style floor seating. As the screaming subsides, there’s a distinct lack of atmosphere. There’s no music. Only the latex squeak of the door blowing open each time an Uber roars past. On my last visit to MoroccOriental, I distinctly remember a soundtrack of Miley Cyrus acoustic covers. I also remember the fish tajine, a real surprise under a conical clay roof; fish balls sinking heavy into a thin tomato sauce. On top, a handful of soggy, luke-warm chips, like Scarborough in the rain.
As chips floating in anything is never a good idea, we opt for chicken livers (£4.50). They arrive under the very same roof, a beautifully painted tajine housing punchy bites of offal and jalapeños. Another special; foul tahini (£4.50) is a bowl of yoghurty paste, bitter with sesame and bobbing with gargantuan broad beans. The falafel (£4.45) is crisp and breadcrumbed, on a bed of raw red onion, sumac and parsley. As I always enjoy staring into my dinner’s eye socket, we choose the whole seabass (£9.99) from the grills. Under char-blackened skin, opal flesh delicately flakes away from the bone.
The curveball comes in the way of the vegetable bourek (£4.99) which is a bulbous rugby shaped pouch, stuffed with cheesy potato and the odd olive. Alongside, a meagre sauce lumped with onion, and some more tabouleh, the whole plate drizzled with syrupy molasses. I’m weirdly enjoying it. The comforting starchy mouthfuls, the holy trinity of fillings, it’s exactly the kind of thing you want to eat after an afternoon session on the glass strewn steps of the Town Hall.
We’re offered four squares of complimentary baklawa. Perhaps the waitress feels bad about the lack of fellow diners, or Miley Cyrus covers, or seasoning. Sugary sweet and dusted with pistachio, each bite gets pleasantly lost in your gums. A bonus treat for the taxi ride home.
On the pavement, an A-frame displays the words "Syrian", "Tajin" & "Milkshakes" in felt tip pen. Despite the slightly misleading homepage, MoroccOriental isn’t pretending to be anything that it’s not. It’s honest food that hits the spot when it needs to. Yes the interior design and atmosphere are a little wanting, but it’s open 11am-11pm seven days a week and it welcomes anyone and everyone. In a world of contempt and dissolution, we could all do with a bit of mashed potato on the side.
Moroccoriental, 106 Burley Rd, Woodhouse, Leeds LS3 1JP
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.
Mix Mezze 6, Bourek 4, Seabass 5, Falafel 5, Chicken Livers 4, Foul Tahini 3, Baklawa 2
Musical chairs, but bonus baklawa evens the play