PYING a useful spot on the central drag of villagey little Wandsworth Town, Moroccan restaurant Doukan might be one more local joint in an area packed with pretty cafes and no end of buggy-pushing mummies to eat in them. However, only a few months after opening last year, it made it onto The F Word, Gordon Ramsay’s Channel 4 programme in which viewers voted for their favourite local restaurant.
It’s a rather charming place, and larger on the inside than you might suspect from the street. From a bar area up front, the restaurant stretches back, all low ceilings, exposed bricks and red plasterwork, a bit North African in flavour without being overt or kitsch. Chef proprietor Khalil Abdesslem made his name with the Nomades line of Moroccan sauces and condiments – you’ll find them in Selfridges and Harvey Nicks – and there’s a deli counter selling these.
Like any good local restaurant, Doukan is open all day, serving breakfasts, brunches, pastries and lunches to those pashmina-sporting mums. Over the weekend it’s open late and only closes on Monday evenings.
For dinner there’s a set menu or a la carte – and perhaps a sign that Abdesslem is trying to do something a little more interesting than your average North African gaff, neither includes hummus. With the set menu you get a tapas-style raft of seven appetizers, like Moorish beetroot puree, spicey spinach and olives, and briouettes jben – pastry parcels filled with feta cheese and coriander – followed by a main course choice. The a la carte menu is pleasingly concise, and good value, with only one main over £13.
We began by sharing a few of the starters from the a la carte menu. They weren’t substantial, even for starters, but a good deal more care and precision had gone into them than is sometimes the case with “affordable” North African or Middle Eastern restaurants. First came some delightful cheese and almond risotto croquettes – they looked like tiny Scotch eggs – served on a grey piece of slate with a smudge of fig sauce. The aforementioned briouattes bjen were a pin-point mixture of contrasting flavours, the pepperiness of the coriander folding gracefully into the creamy feta, with a sweet fig and orange blossom coulis tying things up. Merguese lamb sausages were fiery little wonders, with another well-pitched sauce of tomato and cinnamon that gave real depth to the curried aromas of the sausages. Yet another winner came in the form of Bastilla Fassilla, a filo pastry parcel containing a generous stew of chicken pieces, almond flakes and a cinnamon-infused sauce, topped off with a sprinkling of icing sugar.
I could happily have carried on eating these all night – each dish was hardly more substantial than a canapé selection, but meticulously conceived and prepared. Our main courses didn’t really match up. A lamb and coriander tagine was bland by comparison, the chunks of slow-cooked halal meat chewy rather than tender, and the luke-warm sauce failing to make up for it. King prawn tagine was better – the prawns were substantial, and the red pepper sauce had some fire, with round disks of potato lurking in the gravy to settle it down. But it was a bit oily, and also not quite warm enough. Both dishes came with little bowls of very fine cous cous – we could have done with more of it.
We enjoyed the dessert selection though, including a crisp chocolate tart and some fruity, sticky baklava, which showed the same attention to detail as the starters. The residents of Wandsworth, I reckon, are onto a good thing here.