Last night our humble parish church was transformed into a sumptuous casbah as Vincent Castellano and his team opened another pop up restaurant - All Things Moroccan.
The pillars were draped in shimmering silks, the tables lit by tea lights flickering in burnished lanterns, images of Moroccan life projected onto huge screens and the cupola above the altar, and the strains of North African music wafted over the heads of diners as they arrived. Traders occupied one of the side aisles, spreading their carpets and displaying jewelled lanterns, polished leather, serried ranks of tagines and shelves of skin products to tempt diners as they milled around waiting for their friends.
And what a feast it was. Five courses - with ingredients sourced from as near as Bristol to as far away as Essaouira!
We started with a Salad Platter. A tomato, cucumber and onion salad with argan oil dressing, carrot and orange salad with orange flower dressing, and a beetroot and cumin salad, served with sesame seed flecked flat breads. As on previous occasions, platters were shared between diners to encourage conversation and add to the atmosphere. It was the perfect opening to a Mediterranean meal - fragrant and refreshing. Much was made of the argan oil but, to be perfectly honest, I couldn't detect its presence, except to say that whatever it was it tasted delicious.
We moved on to the Spicy Bits Platter. Lamb meatballs, chicken wings, sardines with sultanas and capers wrapped in feuille de briouat, green and black olives and zalouk. This is the sort of food I love, tasty morsels to pick and savour. The sweet and sour sardines encased in filo pastry were a true revelation and the warm spicy aubergine stew packed an earthy punch.
To clear our palates in preparation for the main course, we were served shot glasses of fresh mint crushed ice tea with ewe's milk yoghurt. The acidity of the yoghurt cut through the minty sweetness of the sorbet and left our taste buds tingling.
Just as well because the Couscous Royale was a feast in itself. There was a hunk of tender slow cooked mutton, spicy chicken chermoula (stuffed chicken with a crispy spiced rub), a fiery merguez sausage, root vegetables stewed with ras el hanout and half a red pepper packed with couscous. A side of aromatic honey and saffron chickpeas and carmelised onions was passed between diners. The fact that I didn't quite clear my plate had nothing to do with the quality of the food but everything to do with my saving a tiny space for desert.
While we waited for tables to be cleared and the next course to begin we were entertained by the Shiny Ladies, a delightful troupe of dancers who, given the number of costume changes during the course of the evening, evidently like dressing up as much, if not more than dancing. They performed a variety of traditional, and original, Moroccan dances with great flourish.
The desert was worth waiting for. A trio of ewe's milk cinnamon cheesecake with poached rhubarb in ginger syrup, spiced orange drizzle cake and sellou. The latter is an unbaked Moroccan sweetmeat made from sesame seeds and almonds, akin to halva, but infinitely superior to any I've tasted before.
All it needed was a small espresso or a glass of mint tea to finish it off, but the lack of facilities making this impossible, I had to wait until I got home for the next best thing, that is a mint tea bag in a mug of boiling water!
Of course the food's important and, once again Vincent came up trumps, but it's about more than that. It's the effort put into virtually transporting us to Casablanca, the attention to detail in the menu and service and, above all, the company. The 160 guests were seated along four long tables, cheek by jowl with people they may have never met before and who they may never see again. We found ourselves next to a French teacher who enjoys evensong at Bristol Cathedral, a young woman from St Petersburgh with her mother over on a visit and a Baha'i follower from Mexico who may very well have met my sister while living in Edinburgh.. We shared a magnificent meal together ... and went on our way.