East end love in the heart of Exmouth Market, Morito…

17 Nov 2016

What is it about first loves? Sure, broken heartstrings can be darned with new kisses. But, like the deep sleep of youth, some states of perfection are never regained, however hard we try.

Ambling down Hackney Road one bright October afternoon, a name caught my eye and tugged at my chest. Morito.

It brought back a night of culinary wanderings through Iberia and the Magreb that will never fall out of mind. This new-in-town Hackney outpost begs an imminent visit. But first, the siren call of first times coaxed me back to the blinking lights of Exmouth Market and Morito mark one. A foolhardy yearning for perfection past? A fling for old times’ sake would tell.

I took my seat at the orange formica bar, channelling Penelope Cruz in Volver. You know the iconic scene? Working outrageous gold-hoop earrings and gorgeously scruffy up-do, Cruz takes her place beside two flamenco guitarists and, out of nowhere, floors us with a bittersweet torch song of first love remembered. That’s Morito to me. It looks a modest space, one side lined with bar seats, the other with low wooden tables. But modesty soon gives way to bright saturated colours and unfathomed emotion in a push-up bra.

The familiar imprint of wood, tobacco and dark-roasted nuts hit the senses in a first sip of Gonzalez Byass Leonor Palo Cortado. There were cheekier aperitivos too. Closest to my heart was the modest rebujito: fino, mint, lemonade and a dash of fresh citrus brought a summery tonic to a darkening October evening.

Morito’s exemplary tapas roves wide in provenance: fragrances from the Silk Road go hand in hand with gutsy Spanish flesh and spices of North Africa. Slices of Jamon Ibérico Bellota, of the richest, acorn-fed flavour that cured pork can offer, were our overture to a menu that offered all my first loves, each as perfect as before.

Our Beetroot Borani – such a simple purée of beetroot with yogurt, olive oil and garlic with a sharpening of red wine vinegar – was an earthy delight from Iran decked with crumbs of feta, dill fronds and walnuts. Morito’s Bread Basket was hiding its bushel. It should call itself exquisite flatbread, deliciously scorched and dusted with za’atar. Worth every burnt fingertip from hungry tearing.

I’ve seen fisticuffs between sweet blonds and feisty redheads end badly. Not so with Morito’s Scallops, Chorizo, Watercress and Amontillado. The piquant chorizo and buttery scallops conversed amicably and deliciously. Wild Mushrooms brought us a campfire woodland supper: chanterelles and oyster mushrooms simply fried, spruced with fino and parsley, and laid on toasted sourdough. Chicharrones and Mojo Verde was pork belly that covered the spectrum of deliciousness from crackling skin to all-about-that-bass fatty meat. Meanwhile, its sharp Balearic coriander sauce piped a tuneful, herby treble.

What better use for the bracing sweetness of Pedro Ximenez than poured over Malaga Raisin Ice-Cream in a raisiny affogato? Better still, Chocolate and Olive Oil Mousse with Hazelnuts was unforgettable. A firm, dark swirl of mousse, spicy oil, bosky nuts and the bite of sea-salt – a dark and comely beauty for the daughters of Jerusalem.

A concise, interesting list of Iberian wines and Gonzalez Byass sherries, from the dryest fino to the sweetest PX, provides an eloquent accompaniment to Morito’s dishes. At around £6 a glass and a shade over £30 the bottle – a touch more for the sherries – these are perfectly manageable prices. Much like the food, with its small dishes between £5 and £10; less for the smallest snacks.

And what about my wistful heart? I gave up on men long ago, but as long as heartthrobs like this exist I need never give up on food. Morito tugs the heartstrings now as powerfully as it ever did. This is one state of perfection I know I can revisit time, time and time again.


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