If there is one thing my parents taught me that has stuck with me through the decades is that it’s easy to do fussy and ostentatious, but it’s pretty hard to do simple. Mostly because you’ve got nowhere to hide. What you see is what you get and what you get needs to be pretty damn good to stand up and be counted. I’ve come to learn this is true for most things in life, especially when it comes to food.
Enter Mora, a small family run Sardinian restaurant in the heart of Leytonstone. Run by Chef Carlo Usai, it draws on quality, locally sourced ingredients, pairing gorgeous Sardinian dishes with organic wines, local craft beers and sustainable soft drinks and spirits. This isn’t your bog standard Italian eatery draped in red tablecloth with bolognese in mind and batches of uninspiring tomato sauce ready to be unceremoniously spooned onto every dish. At Mora you walk into a room with wooden tables and simple decor. It’s not the stuff of design awards but we did not come here for that. We didn’t come to be dazzled by busy, fussy, ostentatious noise. We came to eat well. And boy did we hit the jackpot. The starters told us very quickly we were in for a lesson in simplicity and truth at its most honest and delicious.
Melanzane alla parmigiana is quite possibly one of my favourite things to eat and also one that is often treated with much contempt. I cannot tell you how many bad ones I’ve had. Hard, rubbery aubergine, undercooked, acidic tomato sauce, mountains of nondescript cheese sitting heavily on the layers below as if to smother a mistake… Bad Melanzane parmigiana is a common, sad sin, so when you find the good stuff you pay attention. The one at Mora is the stuff of dreams. Served as an antipasti, it is perfectly portioned. You are neither full nor left wanting. The aubergine is soft but not oily or mushy, the sauce is sweet and full of the flavours of a tomato reduction done rightly, and the mozzarella and parmesan never take over, rather punctuate and enhance the aubergine, meltingly so, adding to the unctuousness of the whole dish. The dollops of basil pesto dotted around serve a double purpose, making the plate look beautiful but also adding temporary hints of green pepperiness to forkfuls. There is never a dull bite with this one. It is majestic.
Moscardini con crema di zucchine e scaglie di pecorino, baby octopus in a cream of courgette and pecorino was a triumph of opposing textures. The delicately cooked octopus could have easily lost itself in its puddle of richly flavoured, cheesy sauce. But it didn’t. It shone individually, allowing the courgette and tangy pecorino to lift it on its own terms.
The pastas then took centre stage. Pappardelle al rage’ di cinghiale, a dish made for winter, was love at first bite. The fresh homemade pasta was smooth, silky and slightly slippery from hints of butter. This wasn’t a shouty, all guns blazing dish. No, this was like a warm, familiar embrace. A ragu of carrots, onions and celery, a touch of tomatoes, all cooked to a flavourful yet humble background, allowed the gorgeousness of the wild boar to shine through. I could eat this every day, curled up on the couch or sat at a large table with all my family gathered around. It is that kind dish that distills comfort and love, soothing and celebratory at the same time. Family on a plate, really.
On to the Tagliolini gamberetti, limone e bottarga, a pairing of prawns, air dried mullet roe and lemon, and unquestionably the sexy star of our meal. This is the kind of dish that doesn’t sit demurely in the corner. It’s bold and proud and not afraid to show a bit of leg. The sultry, salty umami flavours of the roe coat the perfectly cooked, juicy prawns under a shower of zingy lemon zest. It’s truly one I will go back to time and again and one that will see me kick up a monumental fuss should it ever be taken off the menu.
From the Second we tried the Filleto di branzino in crosta di carasau ed erbe con spinaci e crema di ceci, a grilled fillet of sea bass in a crust made of Carasau, a specialty Sardinian bread, and herbs with a side of chickpea cream. The fish was cooked to perfection, retaining its unctuous and firm texture and the spinach was meaty and dense, no hint of the wateriness or limp grey colour.
For dessert, we had Seadas, a dry pastry filled with a creamy, lemony sheep cheese, orange zest and honey. The buttery, salty cheese and the citrus took on the honey like a marriage made it heaven. It was a glorious end to the meal.
Mora has a menu to delight and entice, changing seasonally and also introducing new dishes and ingredient experiments often. It runs special events too, like the Sardinian Feast recently held at the beginning of March. Miss them and Mora altogether at your own peril.
Mora Opening Times and Location:
MON to THU 5pm – 10pm
FRI 5pm to 10.30pm
SAT 12pm – 10.30pm
SUN 12pm – 9pm
487 High Road Leytonstone
London E11 4PG