Take my advice, and Bouga on down to this Crouch End treasure
Bouga, 1 Park Road, Crouch End, N8 8TE. Telephone 020-8348 5609. Food : four star rating Service: four star rating Opening hours: Kemia bar open daily noon-12.30am and until 2am Thursdays to Saturdays). Lunch: noon–3pm, dinner 6–11.30pm. Expect to pay
Bouga, 1 Park Road, Crouch End, N8 8TE.
Telephone 020-8348 5609.
Food : four star rating
Service: four star rating
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Opening hours: Kemia bar open daily noon-12.30am and until 2am Thursdays to Saturdays). Lunch: noon-3pm, dinner 6-11.30pm.
Expect to pay about £25 per head for three courses without drinks.
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An urban myth tells that in the 1990s, Eurythmics star Dave Stewart, who owned a recording studio on Crouch Hill, told Bob Dylan to pop in whenever he felt like it.
Dylan decided to visit and was dropped by a taxi driver on Crouch End Hill. He knocked on what he assumed was Stewart's door. It was, in fact, the home of a plumber, also called Dave.
He was told Dave was out but due back any minute. Would he like to come in for a drink while he waited? When Dave the plumber returned home and asked if he had any messages, his wife told him "No, but Bob Dylan's having a coffee in the living room."
True or not, this area, tucked away in a valley between Highgate, Muswell Hill and Alexandra Palace, has its fair share of artesans and there's a disproportionately high number and variety of interesting and unusual places to eat.
An exotic new arrival to N8 is Bouga, a restaurant, tea room and kemia bar. Its owner, Gamal Ahmed, also owns Pizza Bella opposite.
The literature from the PR said they'd be open for lunch at noon. But at at 12.20pm on a Wednesday afternoon, the big wooden doors looked firmly shut. I pushed one open and asked if I could eat.
A hassled waiter told me to come back in an hour as the kitchen were preparing for an important party. Isn't EVERY customer important? Using feminine wiles, I persuaded him to double check with the kitchen. Good news - we could come in but would be limited to certain items from the menu. Hardly a salubrious start.
The front of the restaurant is the more casual bar and tearoom serving the kemia - Moroccan tapas. There are whitewashed walls, low tables and chairs and colourful cushions. The back section is darker and more formal.
Currently, the menu is the same in each. The decor is heavily themed with much wood, brass, coloured glass and artefacts from Moroccan bazaars. My dining partner said that it felt "Disney Moroccan" - the equivalent of the Italian trattoria with checked tablecloths and hanging chianti bottles.
They'd run out of sparkling water. Our waiter said it was because it's the start of the week. It was Wednesday. In need of bubbles, my dining partner - Auntie Dij - requested diet coke. This needed CO2 even more than she did - it was totally flat. More apologies. The bar staff must have had a big night as they hadn't yet arrived. Bouga's service - charming but haphazard - is clearly still bedding down.
We were well advised on the best dishes to try but also warned that some may take a while. We picked at a dish of glossy chilli-spiced olives while we waited. Our waiter, Vangelis - how sick must he be of Chariots Of Fire jokes? - brought over a basket of delicious, warm, freshly baked bread with a crisp, sesame sprinkled crust and soft chewy crumb.
Our starters weren't far behind and between them gave a real variety of flavours and textures. Cheese borek (deep-fried filo cheese and herb filled triangles) were warm, crisp (slightly greasy) but with a mouth meltingly light, salty filling. Zalouk - a dish of cold spiced aubergine purée - was heavily laced with cumin.
Two chicken pastilles were a revelation. Two freshly baked, crisp, pillowy parcels, packed with moist, beautifully spiced shredded chicken and topped with icing sugar and cinnamon. Each sat on a fat slice of baked, juicy orange. So good I could happily have stopped there.
The serving dishes continued the Moroccan theme park styling. All were chipped, which I assume to be a style choice. Surely Bouga hasn't been open long enough to damage them that much? The attentive Vangelis, calmer now with other staff members on site, brought two tagine dishes and with much theatre lifted the lids to reveal their steaming contents.
Limited to brochettes or tagines, we'd chosen the lamb and prune and a chicken tagine, ignoring the vegetarian offerings. Both came with plain couscous on the side and were extremely good. Cinnamon intensified the sweetness of the prunes in the lamb dish, making the gravy really tasty if a little thin in consistency. It could have been even better if the kitchen had properly prepared the meat. Cheap cuts of meat, although ideal for stewing in a tagine, do need careful trimming. Largely untrimmed - excessive fat and chewy gristle - made it hard work.
In contrast to the lamb's pungent sweetness, the chicken was intensely savoury. The salty bitterness of the olives and lemons worked well with the bland canvas of the chicken, which was juicy and not overcooked. Unsure which we liked better, we shared both.
The dessert list was a mixture of traditional (milk pastille and fresh fruit platter) and less authentic (apple tart tatin). The milk pastille was interesting only for its novelty. Two crisp fried discs of filo pastry were drizzled with a sweet, milky syrup and scattered with almonds. Our other choice, the plate of Moroccan pastries was disappointing, comprising two dry, powdery biscuits topped with glace cherries, some sugared almonds and pieces of Turkish delight. Probably better to have chosen the fresh fruit platter, an authentic end to a Moroccan meal.
In this area packed with dining choices, Bouga needs a little TLC if it is to shine. The food was tasty, winter fuel; the service is friendly, if random. The untrimmed lamb and lack of staples like fizzy water point to a lack of attention to detail. The kemia would be a good way to soak up a few of their cocktails, which looked good. If I'm in Crouch End in the near future, I might pop in again, but I'll give them some time to get their house in order first.
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