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Food
Shakshuka. This glorious, North African Jewish-derived stroke of genius combines soft-cooked eggs with a rich, fiery tomato and onion sauce, served steaming in a cast-iron pan.

Review: Café Tarifa

Pretentious food nerd Jack Rayner on the décor, shakshuka, and seafood platter at a self described "hidden oasis on Cowley Road"
Café Tarifa, where doorstop toast is out and dukkah is in.

"For a true dose of therapy and release from your torment, there’s only one true answer: shakshuka."

Unlike my esteemed colleague, full English-powered traditionalist and proud philistine Jeremy Smith (see The OX Breakfast Challenge), I am a fully paid-up member of the celeriac remoulade brigade.

 

I care deeply about AA Rosette awards and Michelin stars. I know how to make a granita and why it differs from sorbet. I am an enormous, pretentious food nerd. However, whether you’re an effete velouté and foie gras terrine lover like me or a bread-and-meat troglodyte like Jeremy, there’s always room to expand your horizons just a little, particularly when it comes to breakfast. So, to Café Tarifa, where doorstop toast is out and dukkah is in.

The wide open space and Maghrebian character of Café Tarifa would make it a very pleasant place to spend a Saturday afternoon slowly acquiring a late evening hangover.

 

The first thing that grabs your attention here is the décor – enormous driftwood trees wind around stone benches built into the walls, scattered with ample cushions. The wide open space and Maghrebian character of Café Tarifa would make it a very pleasant place to spend a Saturday afternoon slowly acquiring a late evening hangover.

Indeed, Tarifa is also a rather charming place to nurse a self-inflicted malaise. I wouldn’t speak a bad word about the full English on pain of death, but to me, a fry-up is a meal for celebration, for turbo-charging an already pleasant morning, and crucially, one to be cooked at home. When you’re feeling a little more fragile, the overdose of oil and carbs does no good for the creeping nausea and often does the reverse of what you’re hoping for.

So, what’s the alternative, I hear you snarl? For a true dose of therapy and release from your torment, there’s only one true answer: shakshuka. This glorious, North African Jewish-derived stroke of genius combines soft-cooked eggs with a rich, fiery tomato and onion sauce, served steaming in a cast-iron pan. Café Tarifa’s interpretation gets it spot on and then some, with added feta and optional (but obligatory) merguez sausage. Enjoy with a Bloody Mary and let the colour return to your cheeks.

This isn’t a one trick pony brunch menu – on top of the shakshuka and fairly standard range of Eggs Benedict/Royale/Florentine and French toast with syrup and cinnamon, there is a take on patatas bravas warmed up with thick, smoky chorizo and topped with fried eggs, and a smoked haddock kedgeree with croutons. If it’s a little later in the day or you’re just feeling particularly adventurous, there is a trio of platters – one with a selection of charcuterie a vegetarian offering with manchego and bean koftas, both accompanied by fried eggs, dusted with dukkah – an Egyptian blend of ground nuts and spices. The real star of the show here is the seafood platter: tuna carpaccio, seared squid a la plancha and marinated anchovies.

The quality of service at Café Tarifa does seem to depend on which day you choose to attend. On the Saturday of my first visit, the affable waiting staff, enthusiastic bartenders and warm manager were enough for me to convince a cohort of my friends to come with me the very next day. Disappointingly, on that Sunday the place was attended by well under half the number of staff as the day before, and orders moved at a glacial pace, despite a far smaller number of customers. Still, even the slickest of venues can fall foul of staffing issues from time to time, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – they’ll have to make it up to me next time. And there certainly will be a next time – breakfasts that good don’t get forgotten in a hurry.

- Jack Rayner

 

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