Sunday, 24 October 2010

El Cantara Soho

It's a crisp autumn evening and I'm out on the shisha terrace of the newly launched Spanish /Moroccan restaurant El Cantara Soho. The small outdoor space is effortlessly cool, and feels more SoHo New York than Soho London.

As I puff away willfully on my watermelon-flavoured shisha pipe, making patterns in the air from the resulting smoke, a woman emerges wearing a yellow snake and very little else.

The five-year-old snake – as long as the length of the smoking den – is called Sheba. 'She doesn't prey on humans', her owner assures me, as Sheba's head darts towards mine, her black, unblinking eyes fixed forward. I stroke her surprisingly soft yellow skin. Detecting some sort of bond forming, Sheba's owner impulsively wraps the snake around my shoulders. I'm terrified. Luckily, she only accessorizes my dress for a moment, before taking residence on other revelers' shoulders.

Inside I'm offered the house cocktail - Champagne and rose water, with a tiny chunk of pink Turkish delight at the bottom. The Moorish interiors are part AndalucĂ­an tea house, part Marrakesh harem. The small, arched, basement space is decorated with lanterns and paintings of flamenco dancers and bull fighters. When placed side by side, I'm struck by how similar their movements are.

Upstairs, the restaurant is heaving. Huge silver trays of chorizo, lamb kofte and pigeon pastilla are passed round, before a banquet of paella, and lamb tagine with cinnamon cous cous. Amidst the throng, a belly dancer emerges, nonchalantly twirling a pair of fire sticks. I scramble out of singeing distance and for a minute I'm mesmerized.

In the far corner a brunette couple are in full flamenco flow – she clicking furiously on castenets, he making dramatic sweeps with an invisible cape. A crowd forms around them and starts clapping in time to the wailing woman keeping the tune. I head back up to the terrace for another go of the shisha pipe. The evening is winding down, so I switch to mint tea and sticky baclava. El Cantara Soho, with its fusing of Moroccan and Spanish cuisines, seems a logical step for London, which is now, undoubtedly, the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

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