On the southwest corner of the Original Farmers Market on Third Street and Fairfax Avenue, in the space that once housed Nancy Silverton’s burger spot Short Order, is another concept-driven eatery. This time, instead of burgers, the specialty of the house is North African-spiced kebabs called morunos.
At Moruno, the space has a novel indoor/outdoor hangout feel, ideal for an al fresco lunch break while shopping at the Grove. But with such a remarkable wine and sherry list, vermouth on tap, cocktails and exciting food, Moruno aims to be a destination restaurant on its own. During summer, an evening at Moruno could be idyllic. But outdoor dining has its downside: Show up on a rare cool night and, unless you're seated in the more protected bar area, it's uncomfortably chilly. Thankfully, the albariños, Corbières, Riojas and the rest of the long diverse list of Southern French and Spanish wines can help to warm you up quickly.
Aside from having to weather the elements, the upscale casual atmosphere is pleasant and the service is attentive. Servers make the effort to ensure diners know what they're ordering, explaining each dish in its entirety. At first glance the Southern Spanish–inspired menu appears affordable. And if they haven’t run out of menu items such as the Moruno Bowls (the aforementioned skewered meat served on a bed of basmati rice and lentils), it probably would be. But if you’re hungry and thirsty, the seemingly cheap variety of tapas does add up. This is partly due to the fact that unlike other "small plate" restaurants in town, Moruno serves tapas the traditional Spanish way. You’re welcome and encouraged to order more as you go, depending on your appetite and the girth of your wallet. This style of service, for anyone who has dined in Spain, is like a breath of fresh Alboran Sea air.
In Spanish, Moruno translates literally to Moorish. In culinary terms, it refers to a kebab cooked over live coals and marinated in spices such as cumin, paprika, turmeric and pepper. Naming a restaurant after the featured dish sets expectations high. This North African technique sounds ancient, ambitious and very promising. So it’s confusing when the skewer of lamb meat arrives a bit dry, albeit flavorful, and surprisingly difficult to remove from the wooden skewer it’s stuck on. Better to stick with small plates like house-fermented vegetables and anchovy gildas (lollipops of olive, anchovy, pepper and garlic), which are straightforward and delicious.
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Moruno is a great place to pair booze and food: Munching on pescado "en adobo" (fried fish bits) dipped in aioli while sipping slightly effervescent Antxiola Getariako Txakolina wine from Getaria, Spain, is euphoric. Bhatura bread arrives soft, fluffy, lightly fried and seasoned with just the right amount of spice. It also serves as an excellent vessel for dipping into spinach and chickpeas. The garlic and cilantro marinated rotisserie chicken is so juicy, it verges on undercooked.
Upon perusing the dessert menu, your eyes are likely to divert past the three sweet options to the longer list of French and Spanish brandy below. The drink game is strong at Moruno. And though the chocolate sesame tart, fried biscuits with citrus marmalade and saffron rice pudding all sound great, your best bet is probably just to keep on drinking.
As far as concepts go, Moruno is certainly a fun one. And when its sister restaurant, Bar Moruno, opens soon at Grand Central Market, it deserves to be met with enthusiasm.
Moruno, 6333 W. Third St., Fairfax; (323) 372-1251, morunola.com.