The opening of a new North African bar/restaurant in Marylebone is not something to write home about but given the competition you should expect it to be worthwhile in its incipient weeks and months.
Occo opened earlier this year and Londonist visited it shortly afterwards on a particularly sweltering late summer evening.
The surroundings are quietly sublime; clean lines dovetailing into mucky browns; and you are subtly reminded of the effort made to this end by two lonely interior design books perched rather conspicuously in the corner or the upstairs bar/eating area.
There are four distinct areas, bars upstairs and downstairs, an atrium/mezzanine restaurant suspended between both and a private little bed-ooh-in, all soft furnishings and candlelight, off the main bar.
Londonist and three friends ate in the atrium restaurant area that caters for only 12 covers. The atmosphere in here is strikingly different to the rest of the building. Evening sunlight poured in gloriously through the elevated windows; unfortunately the air was rather stagnant. There are some lovely touches though that deserve a mention, rose petals strewn over your table, enough cushions on the bench seats to fit out a birthing centre, candles winking at you in every direction and the occasional waft of incense that gives off the impression that you are actually not in London...it was positively therapeutic if you like that kind of thing (we did).
The food, however, was slightly disappointing. A deep fried cheese was ripe and substantial although the fig garnish lacked fruitiness and tasted more like aubergine.
Liver and sausage salad was good but the seafood stuffed squid tasted nothing like either and desperately lacked seasoning, although pea puree and prawn chopsticks were a nice touch. All these were generous portions but were over fussy.
Mains were varied too – lamb was excellent but the duck breast was very sorry indeed. We prayed that the burnt outside would belie a pink interior- it was however thoroughly overdone and extremely gamey with none of that quacky sweetness to offset the great parsnip sour mash it came with.
Seabass was topnotch but its accompanying broadbean caviar was overcooked and inedible. While breast of chicken was expertly crisped but lacked flavour despite a visible marinade and the vegetables it sat on were pale and insipid.
Side orders were also of variable success; lentils were perfect and looked fab but the bright pink potatoes were over seasoned with chili and harissa and we could only manage one each, out of curiosity.
The chef should be very proud of the spectacle, it certainly looked the part, the colours and textures worked well enough to entered into the Chelsea Flower Show. But its prettiness proved that sometimes you can go too far, and to use the old adage, it’s all about substance, not style, even at £35 a head which is surely the mid market they are driving at.
VERDICT: Swallow some but spit the rest. Could do better - before they inevitably stick up the prices – and I hope they will, as it is a thoroughly top notch environment and the patron couldn’t have been nicer (maybe why we couldn’t tell him all this to his face when he enquired). Overall 7 out of 10, but the food scrapes a 5.