IN AGES past, the caravanserai was an essential resting place for all manner of merchants, sultans and travellers during epic journeys across the arid expanses of the Middle East and north Africa.
Like an ancient form of Watford Gap services, those who passed into the traditionally square courtyard would have access to everything they might need - fodder for their animals, traders with whom to barter, food and water to sustain them, perhaps even baths in which to wash.
Newly opened in Fulham High Street, Caravan Serai offers some of the same essential services, presumably to cater for those weary travellers who have spent so long sitting in traffic between Hammersmith and Putney Bridge: they might have traversed the Sahara in a shorter time.
To calm the nerves, shisha smoking is possible outside, thanks to a handful of small tables nestled under the large awning, retaining an element of cosy relaxation despite the roar of Fulham Palace Road a few yards away.
Stepping inside the luxuriously appointed interior is like walking into a genuine souk, and the bustle outside is soon forgotten as the attention is drawn to the pouffes, mirrors and handmade leather goods piled high against ornate wooden tables under the warm glow of camel-skin lamps.
The main attraction, however, is the food, with a good selection of meaty or non-meaty couscous and tagine dishes available to order and enticing Moroccan and Mediterranean specialities displayed behind two glass counters.
We took a seat in a mezzanine area at the back of the shop that had been decked out in elaborate carpets, comfortable sofas and low coffee tables, and asked to have a vegetarian plate made up for us to share.
The result was uniformly delicious - warm, flat falafel, still moist and delicately spiced; chargrilled red, green and yellow peppers, well cooked and pleasantly sweet; marinated onions and baked aubergine that had become fantastically unctuous.
A mound of couscous with finely chopped red onion, tomato and parsley was fluffy but retained its bite, and best of all was a scoop of freshly homemade hummus, which was some of the finest I have ever tasted.
To follow, we chose four extraordinarily sticky, bite-sized pastries filled with chopped nuts and dates and rolled or pinched into delicate shapes. The best contained a rich, gooey marzipan that would turn the opinions of marzipan haters, while the others shared a hint of rose water and a syrupy goodness that elevated their quality well above the ordinary.
Finishing with a pot of authentic mint tea, served in coloured glasses on an ornate metal tray, this was a thoroughly satisfying rest stop and welcome relief from the oppressively drab November afternoon outside, and a bargain at £10 all in.
Next time you find yourself gasping with thirst, tired and hungry on an epic journey through Fulham, contemplate the wisdom of the ancients and consider stepping out of the traffic for a few moments' valuable recuperation.