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 This figure will be out of date by the time you read this as there is a new bar and a new restaurant opening just next week.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.
Marrakech Avenue, 58 Princes Ave, Hull, HU5 3QG. Open: Tuesday to Sunday, 11amto 11pm. 01482 343746, www.marrakechavenue.co.uk