Soho has become somewhat of a minefield of cafes, fast foodies, bars and restaurants. Every metre you are met with one of the above. El Cantara, sandwiched in between a Nero and Ronnie Scotts, is a unique mix of Spanish and Moroccan that falls into the restaurant bar category.
Ambience and decor
As you ascend the stairs off street level you are met with an option to head upstairs or turn right into the main dining room. Upstairs holds a smaller dining room and El Cantara 's jewel in the crown; a heated and semi covered shisha roof-terrace. Head back downstairs and the main room is distinctly Moroccan in flavour, with terracotta walls, mosaic decorations, rich banquettes and even a mini fountain. It manages to be bang on theme without being tacky. Head downstairs and you will discover the Spanish room due to its terracotta floor tiles and flamenco inspired artwork. This space is mainly for private dinner or drinks parties and also used as a private karaoke room. We dined on a Thurs night and I'd say the restaurant was half full and at this capacity there was a good buzz of conversation and joviality. The background hum of Moroccan music reminded you where you were eating.
Make a wish at El Cantara's moorish fountain
Clientele and atmosphere
As you would expect from a happily affordable restaurant in Soho, the clientele is very varied; from young couples to old couples; from groups of young professionals to groups of well behaved hen parties. A love of tapas or tagines is the deciding factor rather than age or social persuasion. The atmosphere is definitely more of a restaurant buzz rather than bar buzz, after all it is a restaurant! It is at this point that I must mention the shisha roof-terrace. Hidden away on the the top floor is a wonderfully cute roof-terrace decorated with banquettes, wooden carved stools and Moroccan influenced free standing tables. What goes on out here? Shisha and cocktails! It's a small space with only about 30 of us out there filling its cosy capacity.
As with any restaurant a lot of the atmosphere is created by the clientele and the buzz of conversation. We went on a Thursday and it was quite quiet and with faint eastern inspired music in the background the atmosphere can fall a bit flat. We are faithfully informed that on weekends the place is very busy and diners are even treated to belly dancing and flamenco...that sounds a bit more like it! I will be retuning to check this out, don’t you worry!
The secret hidden shisha roof terrace at El Cantara
Food and drink
Being half Spanish myself I am always weary when trying tapas in English restaurants. In the main they normally fall short of the free tapas you get with your beer in most Spanish bars (in Spain). Our Spanish waitress did a good job of explaining the vast amount of tapas dishes available (I let her give her speil to see how knowledgeable she was) and she also had her recommended favourites, which I always like to see from an enthusiastic waiting team. As El Cantara is a Spanish and Morrocan restaurant there are also some Moroccan influenced tapas dishes and, of course, tagines! We opted for a selection of both Spanish and Moroccan Tapas to start with and then tagines for mains. The tapas was good, I was impressed. It lacked the explosive flavours that these delightful tidbits should normally have, so some were a tad bland but the Albondigas (meatballs), Soujouk (spicy sausage) and Zaalouk (aubergine, cumin and coriander tartlets) did hit the right note and made for the perfect starter (Prices are around £4 per small dish). I’m no expert in Moroccan cuisine but have been to Marrakesh and even found the tagines there a bit “over the top”. Personally I don’t like to be confronted with a mound of meat, cous cous and every eastern flavour known to man (oh and dates of course)...I find it all a bit too much. So with slight trepidation I lifted off the decorative lid to my clay pot and was very pleasantly surprised to see a dainty looking tagine (£14), almost pretty, dare I say it. There were no mounds of cous cous or meat piled sky high. The taste didn’t disappoint either; the different spices infused perfectly with the meat and cous cous to leave me with pleasurable mouthful after pleasurable mouthful and for the first time ever I managed to finish a tagine and not have the instant need to go on a 2 month diet to burn off the mountain of carbs. However much we were tempted we didn’t want to go over the limit and order a desert although a rich espresso did the job nicely.
The cocktail menu is obviously not to the standard of a cocktail bar of many of its Soho neighbours but they have tried to create their own twist on classics as well as having a classics menu. Sometimes it is indeed best to keep it simple! My Apple Martini (£7.50), which I drank on the shisha terrace pre dinner, was a bit alcohol heavy and missing the balance of flavours required to make a great Martini but it was more than palatable and a good effort. Over dinner we went for a jug of Sangria (£19), the perfect compliment to dinner. Overall the food definitely hit the spot if a tad bland in (Spanish) places, the tagine was a triumph and the cocktails were B for effort.
A selection of Spanish and Moroccan Tapas at El Cantara
El Cantara is the first time I have come across a Moroccan and Spanish fusion restaurant and for some reason it works! The Moroccan tapas complement the Spanish tapas and make for either a banquet of dishes for a main course or a great way to experience different flavours and cooking methods as a starter. The delicate tagines then sit perfectly for a filling but not cumbersome main. The atmosphere could do with livening up but I will have to give this a second run on a weekend when the entertainment is on and the restaurant is fuller. If you are looking for something a little different for dinner in the Soho area without busting your wallet then whether you are on date night or a group of friends catching up, El Cantara es una buena opción!
Budget: Happily Affordable
Pre-designs: Date night, Catch up dinner, Hen Party, Something a bit different