Authentic flavours, a huge range of dishes and show-stopping entertainment were what Liz O’Reilly discovered on a visit to the new Moroccan Brunch at Mercure Grand Hotel Seef.
Entering Neyran restaurant, we were greeted by a man in traditional dress seated on cushions and offering us hot tea – made with Moroccan black chai and fresh mint leaves and served from a silver pot into small, vividly coloured glasses. It was delicious and I went back for several helpings before taking my seat.
I was pleased to see Neyran had received something of a facelift (or perhaps a subtle tweak) and seemed much brighter than before. But the essentials were still there. The hewn metal lamps hanging from the ceiling and lighting up arch-shaped alcoves in sunshine-hued walls; earthenware plates, in the bright colours and geometric patterns for which Morocco is known the world over, adorning the walls. The new wrought iron seating, sturdy and well-proportioned but also stylish, decked out with cushions in the rainbow stripes of a winter djellaba.
With the aroma of herbs and spices wafting forth, I was excited to explore the extensive buffet and couldn’t help but lift the lid on a series of gleaming tagines – their contents each more inviting than the last – before heading to the salad selection, which my dining companion declared a little piece of heaven for vegetarians and vegans.
I must confess, we piled our plates high. I’m a particular fan of beetroot, add in some green herbs and cucumber and you have a really tasty, satisfying combination. Carrot Mosharmela with its flavours of cumin and garlic was a huge hit, the cumin gently bringing forth the sweetness of the crunchy carrots. I loved the Zaalouk, the rich tomato and eggplant dish in which paprika and herbs play delightfully with the earthiness of the fruits. Toasted olives, generously dusted with sesame seeds, were a revelation – I’ve never tried this dish before and the sharpness of the olives really cut through their usual slight oiliness for a full-flavoured bite. We accompanied our salads with msemmen bread – crispy, fluffy, layered and textured – slightly resembling a chapati. It was excellent and I grabbed another square to mop up my Harira Soup. This oh-so traditional recipe of lentils, chickpeas and tomatoes, robustly seasoned with ginger, pepper, cinnamon and fresh herbs, is literally a meal in itself and something you will find served in every Moroccan home, with good reason. Rich and zesty, it is the one dish that, perhaps, perfectly encapsulates Maghrebi food in one, delicious bowl.
Next, we moved on to the mains and who could resist the call of the gleaming Ouzi tureen? Traditionally cooked in a fire pit, this dish speaks of centuries of history, of soaring deserts and Bedouin horsemen on the horizon. And, I can honestly say, it did not disappoint. The lamb was so tender, the chef was able to serve it using just a wooden spoon, the fibres literally falling apart. The meat, redolent with a secret mix of spices – pretty sure I detected nutmeg, cloves and cardamom – surrounded by veggies all long-steeped in the cooking juices. Perfection!
Then it was time to revisit those gorgeous tagines. Aromatic rice with fish and seafood; Loubia, white bean stew; Green Lentil with Ras El Hanout spice mix. Liver Charmoula, chopped liver with onions, garlic and lemon; Lham bel Barkouk, meat cooked with spices and prunes; Couscous bel Lhem, featuring the traditional pearls of rolled semolina; and Taqaliya – which, Google informed, features parts of the lamb I had no wish to sample – we were truly spoilt for choice.
My companion chose the couscous, rude not to when dining Moroccan. It was cooked with meat but she decided to just take the semolina, veggies and juices. Piquant with a luscious blend of spices that bust on the tongue, the dish was everything she had hoped for and more.
I went for the Chicken Tajine and, though, at this point, we had already eaten more than enough, the deliciously pungent aroma was enough to get my taste buds dancing. The meat was succulent and tender, the juices, redolent with the sweetness of honey and apricots, lending a delicate piquancy. Truly a perfect way to end the savoury part of our Moroccan feast.
After a break for more of that wonderful Moroccan tea, which I was pleased to find is served with ceremony throughout the meal by ladies in traditional white djellabas, we headed to the dessert section where a vibrant selection of fresh fruits sat alongside all manner of authentic Arabic sweets. From Maamoul, the fluffy, date-filled cookies, to Briouat – mini triangles stuffed with marzipan and cinnamon – they were all there. I was particularly taken with the Chebakia, deep-fried golden cookies with honey and sesame seeds. These are usually prepared for special occasions since their preparation can be time consuming, so to find them on a brunch spread was very impressive, as was the inclusion of a date-filled biscuit made from semolina flour, its sweet filling and unusual texture lending something extra to the traditional selection.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the entertainment – after all, this is a big part of the brunch experience and we were truly impressed. DJ AK set the tone with a mix of Moroccan and Arabic tunes which had both, us and our fellow diners clapping along and indulging in some vigorous chair dancing. Singer Mohammed accompanied himself on the electric keyboard for soulful renditions of traditional Arabic songs. But the pièce de résistance was the appearance of an energetic belly dancer. Twirling and shimmying, her long hair flying, the jewel-bright pink of her costume dazzling, she helped make this brunch an occasion to remember.
If you’re looking for a brunch with a difference, I would highly recommend a trip to Neyran, where you’ll truly experience Moroccan hospitality, without the need for a plane ticket. ✤
GO: CALL 1753 4400 FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO MAKE A BOOKING.