Deborah Ross

Restaurants | 23 September 2006

Who hasn’t found themselves in the heart of Kensington thinking, ‘I do so wish there was a Moroccan oasis around here’?

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Pasha describes itself as a ‘Moroccan oasis in the heart of Kensington’, which you would do well to remember, as who hasn’t, at some time or other, found themselves in the heart of Kensington thinking, ‘I do so wish there was a Moroccan oasis around here’? It is just round the corner from the Albert Hall, on Gloucester Road, at the end of a small parade of chi-chi boutiques and bakeries so artisan that the price of a loaf of bread is pretty much up there with the cost of the average car. It’s the kind of place where you don’t so much buy a cake as take a mortgage out on one.

Still, I do like Pasha, from the off. It’s just so OTT. It has a grand, ochre-coloured marble entrance and inside it is stunningly opulent in what I guess you would call the casbah-style: enormous glass lanterns absolutely dripping with beads; sumptuous, scarlet-pillowed banquettes; rich handmade fabrics; wonderful carved wood. The restaurant was taken over recently by Tony Kitous (owner of the successful London restaurants Levant and Levant-ine, also serving North African cuisine) and he has, apparently, ‘stopped at nothing to create the sexy, glamorous interior of his dreams’. Good for Mr Kitous. I mean, if you don’t create the sexy, glamorous interior of your dreams, no one else is going to do it for you. I speak from experience. No one has ever offered to create the sexy, glamorous interior of my dreams. My partner did once hang a blind for me, but it had dropped off by morning, so I don’t think that counts.

Pasha is an extravagantly heady kind of place. Incense is heavily on the go, as are rose petals. Rose petals are strewn everywhere: the tables; the floors; the stairs. As far as rose petal-strewing goes, I think you would have to say this place is well-strewn. It is very romantic, and possibly a destination geared predominantly towards lovers. Certainly, most of the other diners tonight appear to be couples. I, though, meet three of my girlfriends: Lucie, Carrie and Sarah. I ask if they think the restaurant thinks we are probably all lesbians out on a double date. Not that I’d mind. I wouldn’t even mind being a lesbian. I bet lesbians are better at hanging blinds.

We have a drink in the upstairs lounge. The service is sunny and the cocktails are excellent. The ‘Pasha Cocktail’ at £7.50, for example, is an utterly sublime mix of vodka, mint, coriander, lemon juice, ginger beer and champagne. Next we are led down the petal-strewn stairs — enough petals already! — to our table, which is situated apart from the other tables, in its own little intimate alcove with a chunky wooden door. It is very cosy, possibly bordering on the claustrophobic, and with such a low-slung, pillowy banquette it’s hard not to keep slipping down until your chin ricochets off the table — smack! We are given menus and immediately go all dithery and indecisive. There are many, many dishes listed under ‘kemia’, small dishes served as starters. What to choose? And although the mains feature all the North African staples you’d expect — tagines, couscous, pigeon — there are quite a few that you don’t, like swordfish with pomegranate, mint and cinnamon. It would be nice to be offered some advice but we aren’t. So in the end, and bottling out somewhat, we all opt for the set menu, ‘Pasha Feast’, at £35 a head. Set menus are the salvation of the indecisive and I’m so indecisive that it can take me several weeks to decide on buying a particular pair of trousers and if, just before my purchase, the assistant says, ‘Oh, by the way, we also have them in blue’, I will burst into tears and cry, ‘Why did you have to tell me that? Why, why, why, you bitch?’

Our waiter is lithe and friendly and efficient and when he gets our wines mixed up — he leaves the white on the table and ices the red — I decide to forgive him because he has dark, glossy hair and is just so fanciable. I guess I’d make a very bad lesbian although, for the sake of a decently hung blind, I would certainly keep at it. We are given tasty nibbles (olives, pickled vegetables, warm bread) and then our food starts coming thick and fast. We are left to work out what is what, so it’s a bit confusing, but I do particularly remember the briwat jabna, hot pastry parcels filled with oozing cheese and mint. They’re pretty sensational. There’s also an aubergine purée wonderfully spiced with cumin and coriander, a deliciously roasted tangle of tomatoes and peppers and a plate of moist, juicy grilled lamb keftas beautifully flavoured with coriander. The least successful dish is the chickpea one. It’s some kind of chickpea salad with shallots, but the chickpeas are hard and dry and bullety and nobody bothers with it. Or maybe nobody bothers with it because we are too distracted by the belly dancers.

Oh, yes. At certain intervals the music strikes up and out burst the belly dancers in their sparkly outfits. They dance their bellies between the tables. They have wonderfully flat bellies. I think if I were to dance my belly between tables I would knock people off their banquettes. One comes to give us a private belly dance in our alcove. She is very beautiful and can, it turns out, not only do the dance of the belly but can also stand stock-still while moving each breast up and down independently in time to the music. Phenomenal. ‘How do you do that?’ I gasp. She says, ‘It takes me eight years to learn zis.’ Eight years. Heavens, I know people who have done PhDs or become doctors in less time. Just think, all those years wasted — wasted! — when they could have been learning how to choreograph their bosom. Bet they’re kicking themselves now (or would be, if they could — I believe it takes five years to learn to kick yourself properly).

Anyway, the belly dancers come and go all evening. It is a little bit embarrassing, but fun all the same. As for the food, it just keeps coming and coming. Our mains are Couscous Darna (braised lamb shoulder, chargrilled merguez sausage and chicken skewers with steamed couscous and vegetable broth) and Tagine Djaj Chicken, with preserved lemon, onion confit, saffron potatoes and green olives. And you know what? They’re both fine and very nice. The lamb is tender, the chicken is good and sharp and lemony and the couscous is perfectly cooked, all separated and fluffed up. But it’s not out of this world or anything exceptionally special. I’m struggling even to remember it. As for our pudding — a fresh fruit platter with orange blossom — it’s refreshing but I couldn’t locate any orange blossom for the life of me. Not a whiff.

There is mint tea and baklava and pistachios and Turkish delight to round everything off, so do wear elasticated trousers if you can. It’s well-pitched price-wise, I think. You do get a lot of food for £35. But when it comes to it, I’m not sure you’d come to Pasha for the food. You’d come more for the crack of it; for the extravagant ambience and the rose petals and the belly dancers and even the hookah pipes (I had a go — ghastly). It won’t be the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten, but you will have a good time. Thank God, though, for at least one Moroccan oasis in the heart of Kensington. How did we ever live without it?

Pasha, 1 Gloucester Road, London SW7. Tel: 020 7589 7969.