This time last year, I did a reader’s survey (those of you who have been reading a while might remember it). One of the questions I asked was about whether you’d like to read more reviews of restaurants outside Reading, and if I remember there was some enthusiasm but not masses. I asked the question again on Twitter this week and again, the response was mixed. Lots of you said you’d rather read reviews of places in or near the town centre, some of you said you were prepared to travel for good food. But “good” is the operative word, and whenever I head out of town only to eat something mediocre I always wonder, as I’m writing the review, who is really that fussed about reading it. Nobody writes postcards, after all, saying Having an indifferent time, you’re lucky you’re not here (and yes, I know nobody writes postcards full stop, these days).
For what it’s worth, I’m generally with the town centre brigade. When I go out for dinner, especially at the weekend, I like to be able to have more than a solitary glass of wine. And that means that if you can’t get there easily, by bus train or taxi, I’m never entirely sure I can be bothered. So restaurants outside Reading only truly draw me in if they have something about them – a menu full of twists and invention, an ethos that jumps off the screen when you look at the website, or because they do food you simply can’t get anywhere else. And that’s why we’re in Windsor this week, because Al Fassia is a Moroccan restaurant and I’ve been looking for one of those for a very long time.
This isn’t the time to bore you all with my second-rate travel writing (it would be like sitting you down and showing you holiday snaps from some time ago), but I bloody love Marrakech. From the bustle of the medina, dodging bikes and mopeds, to the brightly-lit, hyper-real cacophonous madness of the main square, from the strange dusty faux-French boulevards and grand cafes of the new town to the winding, chaotic lanes of the souk, it has to be seen to be believed. I have lots of happy memories of sitting outside Café des Epices drinking lemonade, playing cards and watching the traders trying to sell some of the ugliest woolly hats I’ve ever seen (honestly, in the height of summer). And the food! That exquisite combination of savoury and sweet, meat and fruit and spice, sampled on roof terraces and in merchant houses, candlelit on those long balmy evenings.
I grant you, probably not easy to recreate in a little Windsor restaurant not far from the arts centre, but on the offchance that Al Fassia could, how could I resist trying? So we arrived one weekend evening to put it to the test.
Our first mistake was turning up so early – foolishly, we’d booked an early table to allow for the train trip home. It meant the place was almost empty. The downstairs room was quite sombre and muted, plain tables and chairs, proper cloth napkins and plates with the restaurant’s palm tree logo, the wooden panelling along one wall the only real concession to Morocco. Upstairs – which wasn’t open the night I went – is very different with shuttered windows, rugs on the walls and those beautiful twinkly pierced metal lights (never let it be said that I lack powers of description). Although we got a good look at everything it wasn’t until much later, when the restaurant was almost full, that you realised what a lovely room it was with the warm light diffusing through those shades and all that chatter.
The menu looks longer than it is, because a lot of the dishes – especially the couscous and tagines – are variations on a theme. It also has a good selection for vegetarians entitled “Vegetarian Corner”, which struck me as slightly unfortunate phrasing (although what the salad de crevette was doing on there I have absolutely no idea).
The service throughout was absolutely flawless, and it began when we were deciding what to order. Our waiter, the only person serving the whole room, perked up when I enthused about Marrakech and then we discussed the wine, the different tagines, his recommendations and some of the other businesses his family had back in Morocco. For starters, there was a pitched battle (well, more like a slight falling out, given that I won) over who got to have the bastilla. If you have never had one before I’d urge you to call shotgun on it before you arrive. It’s essentially the Moroccan version of a pasty: filo pastry filled with layers of chicken (or pigeon, though it was chicken in this case) and almonds, sweetened and flavoured with cinnamon and other spices, folded into an octagon and dusted with – yes, you read this right – icing sugar.
As if to congratulate me on my choice the waiter told me just how much work goes into one. He said that it was the single most difficult and time-consuming dish to make – the filo is hand-made on site, the almonds are cooked and skinned by hand and the chicken is slow cooked and shredded before going into the filo to be baked. Worth all that effort? Without a doubt. It was fantastic – buttery, sweet and savoury with the rich stickiness from the chicken and the sugar, all wrapped in the thin, crisp pastry. You have to be able to get your head around that combination of flavours, but if you can it’s unlike anything else you’ll eat this year. I absolutely adored it – oh, and it’s quite a monster so there’s even enough to give someone some of yours as a consolation prize, if they ask you nicely.
The other starter, the mergas, couldn’t live up to that and it didn’t. Four very generous lamb sausages, on a layer of needless lettuce with some pitta to wrap round it. The sausages – quite a random quartet, all different sizes – were beautifully coarse, meaty without being bouncy or dry, but the heat I associate with good merguez just wasn’t there. It was almost as if they knew they were in Royal Windsor and had decided to be on their best behaviour, and although it would have been suitably unthreatening for anyone in red trousers I wanted something with a lot more punch.
Ironically when I was in Marrakech I eventually grew tired of tagines (having them every night gets a bit much after day three) but in Windsor not having one would have been unthinkable. We took the waiter’s advice – bang on, as it turned out – and tried two chicken tagines. Both featured half a chicken, jointed, cooked until it fell off the leg with next to no encouragement, the breast moist and easy to pull apart. But beyond that they couldn’t have been more different. Tagine djaj aux poichiche was cooked with onions, spices and chickpeas, a rich and savoury affair with a lot more substance to it because of those slightly floury chickpeas. On the other hand, tagine djaj tfaia dialled up the sweetness to eleven, with plump, intense golden raisins and almost translucent ribbons of sweet, caramelised onion. After a few minutes of taking all the meat off the bones we were ready to stir in the couscous and eat in rapt, happy, nostalgic silence. All that for less than twelve quid.
To drink we had a bottle of Moroccan sauvignon blanc. Yes really, Moroccan wine! Actually, I recognised this particular wine from my visit to Marrakech so went out of my way to order it – for all I know that meant it was Morocco’s answer to Blossom Hill but fortunately I’m too ignorant to know better. Besides, it was lovely and fresh with a little hint of apple and a large hint of less than twenty pounds (I have a feeling I’m coming across as quite the Philistine today – and to think they say travel broadens the mind).
Following the mighty bastilla and the hefty mains we weren’t sure we could manage dessert. So we were preparing to finish our wine, enjoy the restaurant in the last of the sunshine and ask for the bill, when something unprecedented happened. A freebie. I can only assume that after chatting to the waiter (who, judging by the website photos, might well be the owner) he took a shine to us. Or maybe he does this for everyone, and I’m just deluding myself. Either way, he patted me on the shoulder and told me he was bringing something special over. I feel I need to declare this now, lest you think I’m swayed by the restaurant’s generosity (although let’s face it, I probably am – who doesn’t like free stuff?).
A few minutes later a plate arrived with a large disc of that home-made filo pastry, sprinkled with finely chopped almonds, honey and cinnamon, finished off with three little spheres of vanilla ice cream. It was a lovely dish – just simple enough, just interesting enough, nicely balanced – and a lovely gesture at the end of a very nice meal. But, in the interests of balance, it looks from the menu like it would have cost eleven pounds were I to have ordered it myself, and I’m not sure it was quite worth that.
No Moroccan meal would be complete without mint tea, served in those pretty little glasses, so we duly obliged and ordered some to finish off. As is traditional the waiter served this on a silver tray, with the tea poured from on high (no, I don’t know why they do this. But I like it). Sweet and minty, this had as much energy in it as a cup of coffee, I’m sure – I’d be reluctant to declare it to my dentist, anyway. It felt like the right way to bring things to a close before reluctantly leaving the premises and coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t in hot, exotic Morocco but rather in slightly cooler, slightly more homely Windsor. Dinner for two came to sixty-one pounds, not including service.
I still wonder when I’ll get to go back to Marrakech. And a more unlikely twin town than Windsor you couldn’t find, despite all the tourists nearly getting mown down by traffic, despite the plethora of tradesmen and women keen to part them from their cash, despite all the historic buildings and shops selling almost identical goods which some of us might class, in the nicest possible sense, as tat. I’ll return to Marrakech one day, I hope. But until then, there’s Al Fassia: worth travelling out of town for, worth catching the train to. There may not be tables out on the terrace, there may not be fans on every seat and you might not find yourself misted with cooling water every few minutes, but even so I really do recommend it. Sometimes, a restaurant is the best travel agent there is.
Al Fassia – 8.2
27 St Leonards Road, Windsor, SL4 3BP