Media Reviews

The taste of Morrocco has got better with age as Dave Lee makes a return visit to Hull’s Marrakech Avenue.

When I lived in the Avenues area of Hull (from the late Eighties to the late Nineties) it was relatively poorly served, gastronomically. There were the usual choice of chippy, Chinese or Indian, there was a below par Mexican and a fairly decent sandwich shop which sold a cheese salad sandwich you could live on for a week. I often did.

Pub-wise, too, there was a ridiculous lack of choice for an area so packed with students, bohemians and well-heeled Guardian readers. The whole of Princes Avenue, for instance, had a grand total of zero pubs. It was still a great place to live, you just had to walk quite a way to get a pint or a decent feed.

That all started to change in the mid-90s, when ‘Prinny’ Ave got it’s first pub, and not long after the millennium the street began it’s vertiginous climb to the bacchanalian high spot of East Yorkshire. In less than half a mile you now have – I counted – 29 places to eat or drink. This figure will be out of date by the time you read this as there is a new bar and a new restaurant opening just next week. Every year you think the culinary onslaught is going to slow down and every year it continues apace.

Around a decade ago, one of the best places for food was Caesars, a Moroccan sort-of deli-cum-takeaway. I would spend a few quid on three or four cartons full of big, spicy meatballs or juicy kofta or their truly delicious hummus and I’d have the makings of North African feast that made the kitchen of my flat feel like a Bedouin tent. Only damper.

Caesars was opened by the Morrocan/ Hull husband and wife team of Mohammed and Heather Zemrani. Mohammed came to Hull many years ago after meeting a Yorkshire lass who was holidaying in Marrakech. He (like most people who stay for any period of time) fell in love with Hull, then out of love with the lass and then in love with Heather, who he married. A keen cook, rather than trained chef, Mohammed wanted to share the food of his birth home with the people of his adopted one and so Caesars was born. It proved instantly popular with the then choice-starved Avenues citizens and, when the chance to take over the whole building came along, Caesars (the takeaway) became Marrakech Avenue (the sit-down) and the place hasn’t been quiet since.

This was 2006 and I visited during opening week and loved it. For reasons I can’t fathom, I haven’t been back since so, when I did, I was delighted to find everything much as it was but better.

The food at Marrakech Avenue is pretty simple – tagines, couscous, grilled meats and fish – but all of it is well prepared, authentic and value for money. I always like to have a few bits and bobs for starters so we filled the table with flatbread, hummus, olives, merguez (sausages), Zaalouk (bruschetta with aubergine and peppers) and some marvellous king prawns cooked in white wine, onion, saffron and cream.

The décor is very Moroccan, with ornate lamps and tassel-y cushions and so on, so when you are sat with a table full of great food, a bottle of Casablanca lager and some chaabi music playing quietly in the background you honestly feel like you could be in Marrakech. Only the icy blast of December wind blowing in every time the door opens reminds you you’re very much not.

Mohammed designed all the dishes based on those he grew up with at home and, with his son now head chef, the food continues to be very traditional. I would recommend the tagines for mains, we had a lamb and a fish and both had that wonderful, deep spiced flavour and moistness that you only get from food cooked slowly for hours. Special mention must go to the spices, which are shipped in direct from Morocco and have so much more complexity than the under-par powders you buy in the supermarket.

Frankly, we were stuffed by this point but, ever diligent in my quest for knowledge, I insisted we had dessert. Just, y’know, so I could find out if it was good. It was. A shared plate of honey and sesame seed covered baklava, how could it not be?

I’m very glad I finally returned to Marrakech Avenue, not only was I well fed, I was also reminded how good food, well-made served in the right environment can transport you anywhere in the world. It was good to see, too, that one of the pioneers who helped start the amazing blossoming of Princes Avenue is still doing well in the face of so much subsequent competition. Perhaps best of all was the price – two of us had plenty of starters, two mains, a shared dessert and a few beers for £55. I think we may have been undercharged, I know it was worth every penny.

Marrakech Avenue isn’t fine dining. It isn’t the sort of place that will ever win awards or feature in any good food guides. What it is, though, is a fantastic place to experience and enjoy an authentic taste of a distinguished, ancient culinary culture. And, seeing as Hull is all about culture these days, that’s something to take great pride in. Long may one little part of Prinny Ave remain safe in Moroccan hands.

– Yorkshire post, 05/01/2014

 

Marrakech Avenue

I ‘ve been to Marrakech Avenue numerous times, but until recently, had only sampled the English breakfasts and baguettes.

I guess this puts me in the same league as Brits who go abroad only to shun the tasty local cuisine and instead opt for egg and chips.

Keen to address my foolish ways, my partner and I booked a table one Wednesday evening and set out on a mission to enjoy a true taste of Morocco.

With all dishes following traditional recipes and made with authentic ingredients – many of which are bought and imported directly from Morocco – sampling a true taste of the North African country isn’t hard.

This authenticity is reinforced by bold red and gold decor, an array of woven cushions and ornaments, as well as the interesting music playing softly in the background – we heard an unusual version of George Michael’s Faith and a similar take on a Phil Collins number, which we thought was brilliant.

My partner and I love spicy food and could quite happily have eaten anything on the menu, but I eventually chose the humous and Moroccan olives starter followed by chicken couscous.

My partner opted for the mozzarella and tomato salad and the Marrakech platter for one.

The spicy aroma in the air had further fuelled our appetite, so we also ordered Lebanese potatoes and Zaalouk  side dishes.

The weather outside was still warm and the outdoor seating area looked very tempting, however we figured the British weather has a habit of getting cool rather quickly, so we instead took a table inside by the window – great for watching the world go by.

As you would expect for a midweek, Princes Avenue was relatively quiet and this was reflected in the number of other diners in the restaurant.

That said, it wasn’t long before passers-by began popping in and asking for tables, and the place soon filled up.

Having seen how busy Marrakech gets on a weekend, I strongly suggest pre-booking for Friday and Saturday nights, in particular.

When our starters arrived we both realised our meals were going to be more substantial than we’d initially thought.

Mine comprised of a large dish of homemade humous with an equal-sized dish of plump olives, served with toasted pitta pieces – essentially a light meal in itself.

The restaurant had run out of mozzarella, so my partner was asked if he wanted goat’s cheese with his starter instead, and he found this a welcome replacement – soft and creamy with a lovely tang, which was complemented by the ripe, juicy beef tomatoes and a generous drizzle of tasty basil and pesto sauce.

The waitress gave us just enough time after finishing our starters before serving the main courses, at which point we realised our eyes were, indeed, far bigger than our stomachs.

Served on a bed of light, fluffy couscous, my chicken was juicy and flavoursome and much more plentiful than I’d anticipated.

But the tasty roasted vegetables almost stole the show; they were delicious, as were the sultanas that were heaped on top.

My partner’s platter, which included Moroccan marinated chicken, lamb and kofta skewers with grilled vegetables, salad and a selection of dips, went down a storm.

Needless to say, he didn’t offer me any, despite saying there was far too much.

The Lebanese potatoes we ordered as a side dish were ridiculously moreish and got a big thumbs up.

Eventually, we had to admit defeat and leave some of the food, as there was just too much. But, having never sampled a Moroccan dessert, we ordered some baklava and were glad we did.

The sticky, sweet pastry containing nuts and honey proved the perfect end to a beautiful meal.

Type: Moroccan.
Quality of food: Excellent.
Atmosphere: Laid-back and friendly.
Service: Very good, the waitress was chirpy and helpful but not overpowering.
Value for money: Very good – the portions are huge.
Best for: Celebrations, impromptu weekday meals or whenever you fancy a bit of spice.
Would you go again? Yes.

– Grimsby Telegraph/Hull Daily Mail 20/07/13

 A tiny piece of Morocco in Hull

Hull is one of those cities where you will have to venture further than just the city centre to get the real spirit of the place. While Newland Avenue is the perfect place for vintage shopping and tasty take-aways Princes Avenue is certainly the place to see and to be seen. Halfway between the university and the city centre this area attracts a diverse crowd of people looking for a posh night out and exotic food. Prinny Ave as the locals lovingly call it is my primary port of call when looking for a nicer night out than your typical student night. With a wide variety of restaurants, bars and cafes there is something for everyone.

The one place that I have been eying up without ever going to is Marrakech restaurant – right at the beginning of the food mile it looks incredibly inviting from the outside with the dark wooden fittings and the colourful lamps. The menu chalk boards promised traditional Moroccan food and every time I was going past there on the bus I had to restrain myself from jumping off and gorging on all the spicy deliciousness. Olives and dates are some of my favourite things, both of which I associate with north African cuisine. What stopped me from going for so long was the lack of a website or an online menu. I am a sucker for reading menus and only go out to eat if the dishes offer sound good. I am not much for a surprise and would hate going to a fancy restaurant just to discover that there is nothing on offer that I like.

However, after two years of taking the bus past Marrakech fairly regularly it was finally time to jump into the dark and actually try it. My housemate and I had planned a girly night in but after some consideration we got dressed up and ventured on a date while our respective boyfriends were slaving away at work. When it is dark the restaurant looks even more inviting than during the day with all the lamps and candles giving it a very romantic feel. With it being mid-week we were surprised by how busy it was but luckily we still got a table. There are two tables outside on the small terrace for anyone brave enough to try their luck at al fresco dining in Hull. We were definitely not dressed warmly enough and opted for the cosy inside area instead. The front of the restaurant looked very cramped with tiny tables hardly big enough for dishes and plates. The fifteen odd people stuffed into the tiny room and the opening to the kitchen made this area a bit stuffy and quite loud. I guess it would not be too bad if you are on a date and being close to each other is an advantage rather than a nuisance. We were quite happy when the waitress brought us to the back area – a narrow room covered in Moroccan fabrics, candles and colourful lamp shades. It looked absolutely stunning and somehow Marrakech managed the fine balance between wanting to be very obviously Moroccan but not looking tacky.

The tables here are a bit more wildly spaces with a continues bench running around the room but still, I would only go here with people that I am quite comfortable with. Not much private space or privacy here either though. Anyway, we enjoyed the atmosphere and happily started to study the menu. Marrakech offers a wide selection of starters priced between 3£ up to 8£ ranging from the obligatory olives to cold vegetable salads and small kebabs. Main courses are very meat-heavy including various types of kebabs and of course Moroccan tagines. Tagines are meaty stews prepared in traditional clay pots served with bread or couscous on the side. At least that is the case in Morocco proper whereas here they are served on their own. We opted to share the set meal consisting of a starter of our choice, a selection of Moroccan salads and vegetables, three tagines to share and baklava as a dessert – all for less than £23 per person.

For starters we had hummus, marinated olives and small kebabs. All arrived within minutes of ordering and were accompanied by warm flatbread. The kebabs were two small kofte kebabs (seasoned minced meat grilled around a skewer) with a small side salad. Albeit a bit small they were very tasty and my housemate enjoyed them a lot. The hummus was equally tasty and definitely homemade; flavour wise it was lovely but a bit too oily for me. When I make hummus at home it is usually a bit dryer without the oil swimming on top of it. The olives where a big let-down for me – far too spicy without any real taste. I am a bit biased here as I absolutely love olives marinated in lemon and herbs, which is what I expected here as well. These olives however tasted of nothing but spice to me. I have been to Marrakech Restaurant since and tried them again – on subsequent visits they were not as spicy and actually quite tasty. Maybe I got unlucky on my first visit and got some olives from the bottom of the jar.

The selection of Moroccan salads turned out to be a few small dishes of various vegetables preparations, all of which I adored and could eat most days. We had butter beans in a spicy tomato sauce, grilled and marinated aubergines and two other dishes that I cannot really remember anymore, I am almost certain one was green – maybe a green bean stew? Regardless of my memory being like a sieve right now they were all very tasty and, although they did look on the small side when they arrived, rather filling. We still had some bread left over from the starters and thoroughly enjoyed dipping it into the various veggie dishes. Slightly full by that point we were still looking forward to or mains.

Usually I am all up for getting served as quickly as possible but a bit of a wait would have been good to let everything settle. However, the tagines where brought over almost immediately once we finished the second course. The three tagines of the day were chicken & ginger, meatballs in tomato sauce and lamb&prunes. All sounded lovey but we were debating whether to get some couscous or potatoes to soak up the sauce as none come with the set menu. Luckily we didn’t as these tagines were huge! We shared each of them and struggled to finish our least favourite one – the chicken and ginger. Cooked with potatoes and carrots I thought it was rather bland with the chicken having a very rubbery consistency. The sauce was not unpleasant but albeit it was nothing special either. We tried it but in the end decided that it tasted more like chicken soup with chucky veg that a Moroccan dish. The lamb tagines was the one I was looking forward to the most. Taste and texture wise the lamb was perfect with a lovely melt in your mouth consistency. The sauce and the prunes were divine and my only little niggle would be that some of the lamb pieces were very, very fatty. The surprise of the night was the meatball tagine. We did not expect much from it, thinking it would be a cheap dish added to the menu to bulk it up a bit. They turned out to be lovely, simmered in a mildly spiced tomato sauce that was very different from the Italian inspired dish we expected.

All in all we loved the food so far and were so full that even thinking about dessert caused out tummies to be very, very upset. But hey, there is no chance that I would say no to baklava and mint tea. Both took quite a while to arrive which surprised us given the quick service earlier that night. The baklava was tasty but a bit on the small side – I love baklava so there can be never enough for me. We had a choice of coffee and mint tea as part of our meal deal, with both of us opting for the tea. Served in a small can with a traditional tea glass it certainly fitted the surroundings. The mint tea was quite strong and I needed heaps of sugar to drink it

Throughout the night staff was very polite and professional. It was however rather hard getting their attention. Sitting in the back we sometimes did not see a waitress for a good twenty minutes. Drink orders took long to arrive compared to the food orders. We did not really mind though given how lovely the atmosphere was in Marrakech. The back room was simply lovely with my only niggle being the slightly too loud music playing in the background. I could imagine this place being rather too noisy for a nice meal if you are unlucky enough to share the room with a big group of people.

For the set meal and a couple of soft drinks each we paid less than 60£ – good value for money given the quality and the size of the dishes as well as the lovely atmosphere. Marrakech is a great addition to Hull’s culinary scene and I can highly recommend it to anyone. Saying that, I am not sure how child friendly it is with the small tables and everything, there would certainly be no space to let the kids run wild. Maybe it would be better to leave the kids at home when going there for a meal.

– Travel Ciao website